[Relevant document: the Thirteenth Report of the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2010-12, on Unauthorised tapping into or hacking of mobile communications, HC 907.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered matter of public confidence in the media and the police.
You have heard a lot from me already, Mr Speaker, so I will keep my opening remarks brief.
I want to start by paying tribute to this House and to hon. Members who sit in it. Just a couple of years ago, at the height of the expenses scandal, people said we had lost relevance and that we no longer properly represented the constituents we served. We have got a long way to go before regaining full public trust, but the past two weeks have shown the House, in many ways, at its best.
We have seen the true worth, for instance, of our Select Committees, with the forensic scrutiny of those in positions of power, in the public interest. I particularly want to pay tribute to 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). We have seen vigorous debate, with this House leading the public debate, finishing of course with News Corporation’s withdrawal of its bid to take over BSkyB, and we have seen cross-party support and action to get to the bottom of what happened and learn lessons for the future.
We now have in place a judge-led, independent public inquiry. It will have all the powers necessary, and I want to start the debate by saying that we must be careful not to pre-empt all its deliberations or seek in advance to answer all the questions it must address. There is a good reason for setting up this inquiry, and we must let it do its work. That does not mean that we should not be clear about the big picture of what needs to be done. As I said a moment ago, all this has got to begin and end with the victims; it is they who have suffered the most, and we must do right by them.
In opening this debate, I simply want to set out the four vital questions that we need to answer, which in turn lead to four vital things that we, as a House of Commons, must resolve never to let happen again. The first question is how we can secure a free and vibrant media, completely unafraid to challenge authority but operating within the law. We must never again see this widespread lawbreaking, including the terrible crimes committed against people who have already suffered. We should not assume that those practices extend across all media, some of which have an excellent reputation, but neither should we think that this is isolated in just one institution.
The second issue is how we can secure strong, well-led, independent yet accountable police forces that are able to pursue the powerful without fear or favour. Yes, they must be able to work constructively with the media, but never again should they be at risk of being corrupted by the media.
The Prime Minister will know that Operation Weeting began just four days after the resignation of Andy Coulson. Can he therefore confirm to the House that no one at No. 10—neither he nor any of his officials or advisers—had any notice of the commencement of Operation Weeting?
I can only speak for myself: I had no notice of it. I know full well that Andy Coulson’s resignation, and the timing of it, were not connected to any event like that. The timing of it was simply a result of his recognising that he could not go on doing his job with that swirl of allegations going on. To be fair to Andy Coulson, he recognised that the second chance that I had given him had not worked. That is why I have been so clear about that issue today.
The third issue is how we can bring about a situation, which he have discussed a lot today, in which governing parties eager to hold on to power or opposition parties yearning to win power can have a sensible, healthy relationship with media groups and owners without ducking the regulatory issues that need to be addressed. We must never again get into a situation in which the issues of effective media regulation are left on the shelf year after year.
In response to the Prime Minister’s call for party leaders to join him in publishing their dealings with the media, the Leader of the Opposition heckled “No, you’re the Prime Minister”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this situation would be greatly helped if those who aspired to be the Prime Minister behaved like one?
I am sorry that my hon. Friend did not get in to speak among the first 138, because that was an absolute cracker.
We have seen that cosiness with the media is clearly a problem for the police, but it might be a problem for other walks of public life as well. I have therefore asked the Cabinet Secretary to write to all permanent secretaries to ask them to review the way in which contacts between the media and their staff, and other professional groups that work with their Departments, are regulated and recorded. We see that there is a problem with the police and the media, and we need to get ahead of there possibly being problems with other groups as well.
Given that the Prime Minister has today dismissed the evidence set out in The New York Times that caused the police to reopen the investigation into phone hacking, does he have confidence in their decision-making processes? Or does he think that press reports should not be part of police investigations?
Of course everything that is published should be brought to my attention and to the police’s attention. The point I am making is that if I had been given evidence that Andy Coulson knew about hacking, I would not have hired him, and if I had had evidence that he knew about hacking, I would have fired him. I cannot put it any simpler than that.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way in a moment; I want to make some progress.
The fourth and final challenge is how we address the vexed issue of media power. We need competition policy to be properly enforced. We need a sensible look at the relevance of plurality and cross-media ownership. Above all, we need to ensure that no one voice—not News Corporation, not the BBC—becomes too powerful. We should be frank: sometimes in this country, the left overestimates the power of Murdoch, and the right overdoes the left leanings of the BBC. But both have got a point, and never again should we let a media group get too powerful.
I accept that there is a certain paradox involved here.
The letter says:
“The reason that a new investigation has been commenced and the situation has subsequently changed so markedly”—
that is, since the advice given to me as Home Secretary—
“is that in January 2011 News International began to co-operate properly with the police. It is now evident that this was not the case beforehand.”
January 2011 was when Andy Coulson resigned. Does the Prime Minister think that that is just a coincidence?
The point I was going to make, which is important, is that in my understanding, the reopening of the investigation was in response to new information from News International, and that it was not in response to the April article. The point about Andy Coulson’s resignation, which had been under discussion for some weeks, was that he recognised that he could not go on doing his job. It was not, to the best of my memory, connected with any single event. It was literally: “I can’t go on being an effective communications spokesman. I have to resign. Let’s just make sure we get on with it and do it in an orderly way.” [Interruption.] I know that that does not fit the many conspiracy theories that hon. Members have tried to produce, but that is actually what happened.
Let me make three suggestions on media plurality and power. One: it is right that there are good and proper legal processes for considering media mergers, but we should ask whether politicians should be abstracted from them altogether. Two: it is right that there is a plurality test, but we should ask whether that test should be ongoing, rather than just considered at the time of takeover. Three: plurality is difficult to measure, especially in the modern internet age, but we should not rule out the idea of limits, and it is right that the inquiry should look at this issue.
What the Prime Minister has said about plurality is extremely interesting and important, and it will have a bearing on the future structure of Ofcom, but does he agree that we need to think carefully before tearing up the main provisions of the Enterprise Act 2002, which keeps Ministers out of decisions on takeovers and mergers?
I certainly agree with that. Indeed, I think that there might be a case, when it comes to media mergers, for trying further to remove politicians. In regard to all the issues that have been raised so many times today, that might be one way of putting all this beyond reproach.
It might sound decisive to talk about never letting these things happen again, as I have done, but let us be frank: it is far more difficult to deliver that outcome. We in this House need to recognise some home truths about the subjects we are discussing. First, none of these questions—for instance, about media influence and power—is new. There has been a debate about undue influence that stretches from Beaverbrook to Rothermere to Murdoch. Ironically, with newspapers declining and the internet booming, this should be becoming less of a problem. Nevertheless, a problem it remains. In my view, this simply underlines the need for the inquiry, because it will help to jolt us politicians into action, and that is no bad thing.
Sue Akers, who is now in charge of the investigation, says that what broke the logjam of the cover-up was the civil cases that were taken by individuals forcing disclosure by News International. Part of the problem, and one of the reasons we have all failed in this over the past 20 years, is the fact that News International and Metropolitan police officers directly lied to Parliament, and the Select Committees were either unable to or did not do anything about it. One of the problems with the Leveson situation is that, because of the Bill of Rights 1689, he will not be able to consider whether Parliament was lied to. We are the only people who can decide that. Will the Prime Minister ensure that there is a point at which we in this House can make that decision?
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. His recognition that this is a 20-year issue in which politicians of all parties have not stepped up to the mark is wholly to his credit. I want to take away his question of parliamentary privilege and the Bill of Rights and give him a considered response to it, because I do not want the inquiry to be prevented in any way from getting to the truth. Our constituents would not understand it if there were some process, however important it might be historically, that could prevent that from happening.
The second home truth is that none of these questions is restricted to Britain. Right across the world, there is a problem of ensuring that police forces are accountable to the Government yet independent from them. We must never compromise operational independence. This goes to some of the questions that I was asked earlier. We must not move to a system in which politicians can step in to say, “Why haven’t you re-run this investigation?” or “Why haven’t you arrested that person?” We need to think for a moment where that would lead. But that makes it all the more important that police leadership is strong, and that the police are called to account when they fail. That is why we are introducing directly elected police and crime commissioners, to bring proper accountability to policing.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and I agree very much with the point he has just made. However, does he not agree that he needs to be absolutely clear beyond any doubt that no elected police and crime commissioner can direct that an investigation should not begin, or, indeed, should begin?
Let me make a bit of progress, and then I will give way to the hon. Lady.
The relationship between the police and the media is a problem the world over, too, but we have to ask—and hon. Members have been asking this today—why ours seems to have become quite so cosy, so leaky and so potentially compromised. Similarly, there is nothing peculiar to Britain about the potentially unhealthy relationship developing between media proprietors and politicians.
That leads to my third point, about trying to turn these noble sentiments of “never again” into action. None of this is easy, and a point that must not be lost in this debate is that to over-regulate the media could have profoundly detrimental effects on our country and our society. We must not miss this in the frenzy about the dreadfulness of hacking at this point. Without a public interest defence, the so-called “cod fax” that uncovered Jonathan Aitken’s wrongdoing might never have emerged. To give another example, are we seriously going to argue in this House that the expenses scandal should not have come to light because it could have involved some data that were obtained illegally? So, we need to step very carefully into this area.
I am glad to say that it is about not the Bill of Rights but the terms of reference that are now in the Library. I simply wanted to ask the Prime Minister to answer this question, if he would be good enough, on the recommendations that can be made by the judge-led inquiry with reference to the question of media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership. Is this intended to cover the whole media, in a way that would ensure that the kind of standards expected of the media in relation to future regulation would be included in the judge-led recommendations?
I think the terms of reference are pretty clear. The point about cross-media ownership is not about conduct; it is about not just market power, but power of voice. What you are trying to do with cross-media ownership is, if one organisation has a very powerful television station, a number of newspapers, and perhaps some radio stations and some internet sites, how do you agglomerate that and try to measure its power? I can bore for Britain on this subject because I used to work for ITV, in competition with BSkyB and the BBC. It is a very difficult thing to do, but that does not mean we should not try. On the terms of reference, that is what the cross-media ownership part is about, but clearly it is looking at media regulation more broadly, specifically of the printed press, but it can go further.
I am going to make some progress, and then I will give way a couple more times before I close.
So, Mr Speaker, the question is, given the difficulties I have mentioned, how do we maximise the chance of making a clean break with the past. I want to set out some very clear lessons. First, we have got to try to proceed on a cross-party basis; otherwise, we will have each party trooping off to media organisations and promising the lowest common denominator. If I say “independent regulation”, there is a danger someone else will say “self-regulation”, and so on. We could end up constantly competing with each other in a kind of regulatory arbitrage over who can be the softest and most appealing to newspapers, television stations and their owners. I do not think we should pretend this is simply about tabloids or even simply about newspapers. I am a huge supporter of the BBC and the licence fee, but, frankly, I think there did come a time in recent years when the income of the BBC was so outstripping that of independent television that there was a danger of BBC News becoming rather dominant. So, there are dangers right across the piece here.
The offer to work together with all parties on this agenda is indeed a genuine one.
However critical I may be of the press, and however biased in many ways, I am totally opposed to any form of gagging, and that, I am sure, is the view of most of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, does the Prime Minister accept that self-regulation has been totally inadequate from day one? It has been a total farce, so if we are to have self-regulation, which I hope will continue, it must be far more effective than it has been.
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman that the current system of self-regulation has failed, not least because it did not properly respond to all these warnings. That is why I choose to talk about independent regulation. I do not want to see statutory regulation—the heavy hand of the state. We have got to try to find a way to make sure that the press are regulated in a way that is independent from them, but not by the state and the Government. I think it is doable.
I am going to make some progress and then I will come back to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon).
The second key to success in translating all this into action, I believe, is restraint. The media will see politicians agreeing with each other about the need for regulation, for plurality and all the rest of it, and they will fear a stitch-up. Indeed, they are already talking about one. So, I do believe that politicians need to show some restraint in what they say and do about the media. There are many in this House, I know, who have been victims of a media that have been prepared to break the law or behave in a bullying fashion. But we must not forget that this scandal, like so many others, whether we are talking about expenses or the FIFA scandal, which I feel particularly exercised about—they were uncovered to the fullest degree by the media, by newspapers, not by regulators. Let us not forget that. So, the balance we must strike now is to allow an aggressive, challenging and independent media, however much that might sometimes frustrate us, while halting the abuses that all decent people find unacceptable.
Let me make a bit more progress.
The third key to success is that, while we cannot commit in advance to legislate simply for whatever comes out of this judicial inquiry, we should, I believe, invest all possible faith in this inquiry, because it is our best chance of making a fresh start.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Given what he has just said, is he aware that the BBC accounts for 70% of TV news, and that on the internet it has 10 times as much market share as Sky? Is not an answer to this to democratise the licence fee, and to give licence fee payers a vote on the board and structure of the BBC?
It is an interesting idea, which my hon. Friend can put to this inquiry. I think the key is—I am biased, as I worked in ITV for many years—that you do need strong, independent television to give people a choice of news. I have made many mistakes in my life, and I think one of them was agreeing, briefly, that it was a good idea to move the “News at Ten”. I think it was a very bad decision, and a proper plurality in news is very important.
Let me make a bit more progress.
In anticipation of what might come out of a judicial inquiry, we are planning a communications Bill this Parliament that can take into account the recommendations of the inquiry.
Finally, painful though it can sometimes be, there is no doubt in my mind that when it comes to the best way to achieve the more healthy relationship between politicians and the media, transparency is the absolute key. Clearly, that is vital in contact between political leaders and media groups. I have set out, as I have said today, all my contacts since the election; I look forward to others doing the same. I am sure that Tony Blair and the last Prime Minister will soon follow suit for their time in office.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for giving way. Returning to the issue of the police’s operational independence, he rightly emphasised the important principle that politicians cannot tell the police whom to investigate and what to pursue, but that cuts both ways. What message does he think the Mayor of London was sending out when he said, in the same weeks when John Yates was scoping his inquiry, and just days after John Yates sent his e-mail to the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, that any inquiry and any allegations were codswallop, politically motivated and not worthy of discussion?
The point I would make is that it is quite clear that the police have operational independence, because they have pursued, without fear or favour, these issues and they have arrested everyone they have thought it necessary to arrest. What is interesting is that I think that operational independence is so embedded into the psyche of British policing that, whether it is the Mayor of London or whether you have police commissioners, I do not think it would interfere with that.
Finally, Mr Speaker, in this debate let us not lose sight of the big picture. The people who send us here want some pretty straightforward things. They want their media free and punchy, but they want them within the law. They want their police independent and strong, but honest and incorruptible, and they want their politicians to sort out a mess that has sapped their faith in the key institutions of our country. Whatever our differences in this debate, we should be clear today: we will not let them down.
I welcome this debate and in starting it, all of us should remember what brings us here. Parliament would not have been recalled today had it not been for the revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. That revelation shocked our country and turned something that had seemed to be about the lives of politicians, footballers and celebrities into something very different about the lives of others who had never sought the public eye. It is the courage of Bob and Sally Dowler, and Milly’s sister Gemma, in speaking out, that has been the spur for much that has happened in the last fortnight. I pay tribute to them for their courage in speaking out about these issues.
People’s anger about what has happened with phone hacking has been real, but some people will no doubt ask—indeed, we heard a bit of this in the statement—why, when we have so many other problems facing the country in relation to the economy, the NHS, defence and all those issues, the House of Commons is debating this issue in particular. It is true that this issue does not directly concern our jobs and living standards, but it does concern something incredibly important on which all else depends—the fabric of our country. We do not want to live in a country in which the depraved deletion of the voicemails of a dead teenager is seen as acceptable, in which the police’s failure to investigate that is seen as just the way things are and in which politicians’ failure to tackle it is seen as the way things are.
I do not think there is one person in the country—well, maybe there are a handful—who thinks the depraved deletion of a voicemail, as the right hon. Gentleman describes it, is acceptable. What people are wondering about is whether politicians find it acceptable when people are not honest—this is across the House—about dealings between politicians, the press and the police. That is why we are here today. I do not want him to think that anyone in the House would think those deletions were acceptable.
I agree completely with the hon. Lady’s comments. As the Prime Minister said in his speech, there are issues here for the press, the police and, indeed, politicians.
This debate goes to the heart of the country we should aspire to be. It goes to the integrity, responsibility and accountability of some of our established institutions. At the heart of the debate is the issue of how these institutions and the people who head them act. Can the press be trusted, in the words of the Press Complaints Commission’s first chairman, Lord McGregor, not to dabble
“their fingers in the stuff of other people’s souls”?
Can the police be trusted to investigate wrongdoing without fear or favour? Can we, as politicians be trusted—as I have said and as the hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) has just said—to speak out when wrong is done?
For the Dowler family, let us be honest, until just two weeks ago the answer to all those questions was no—and the fact that it was should shame our country. So when I read in the newspapers that this is the angst or obsession of a few people in Westminster, I say that it is not, because it goes to the kind of country we are.
It also goes directly to something else that we on both sides of the House hear and talk about a lot: the responsibilities of those without power in Britain, such as those on benefits. We all use words such as “cheats” and “abusers” and we saw that language in the News of the World; some of it is even true in respect of a minority, but how much—let us be honest about this—do we talk about the responsibilities of the powerful? What message does it send to the rest of our society when the established institutions of our country behave without responsibility? It sends the message that anything goes because no one seems to care about right and wrong.
This debate goes to one more, final issue: just as the expenses issue undermined the reputation of the good, decent majority on both sides of the House, so too this scandal affects the vast majority of good, upstanding police officers on whom all our communities rely and affects the vast majority of decent journalists who are doing their job and are, as the Prime Minister said, necessary for a free and fair society. It is also in their interests that we sort this out.
When people say that this does not matter they are not just saying, “Let’s talk about something else”, but something far more serious. That cynicism about the country we live in is almost inevitable—that nothing can be done. I say to Members on both sides of the House. and I am sure that I speak for Members across the House when I say it, that if we fall prey to that, nobody will trust established institutions in this country—or, indeed, anyone else.
The Labour party’s director of communications, Tom Baldwin, is accused of having been involved in the unlawful accessing of banking records to establish details of payments made. May I ask the Leader of the Opposition, who himself aspires to lead this country, what checks he made and what assurances were given to him about Mr Baldwin’s conduct before he appointed Mr Baldwin to that high office?
I take all allegations against members of my staff seriously, which is why I checked these out with The Times newspaper, which specifically confirms what the gentleman to whom the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) refers said, which is that he did not commission illegal investigations into Michael Ashcroft. [Interruption.] I have to say to the Prime Minister, who is chuntering from the Front Bench, that we should rely on some of those people because Tom Baldwin’s line manager was the current Education Secretary for much of the time in question. He is not in his place today, but for much of the time that the investigation was going on into Lord Ashcroft—remember him?—Tom Baldwin’s line manager was the current Education Secretary. I see the Prime Minister is smiling. This issue has been raised a number of times and I have to say to hon. Members, “Remember Lord Ashcroft and his assurances. Remember his assurances about his tax status, which were relied on by the current Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister.” I have to say to Conservative Members that if I were them, I would shut up about the allegations regarding Lord Ashcroft.
I have been listening to the passion with which the right hon. Gentleman has been making his case, but if that passion for reform really is there, can he tell me why the previous Government did nothing but talk between 2002 and 2007 about reform of the Press Complaints Commission?
The hon. Gentleman is completely right that we did not do enough and we should have done more. I am absolutely clear about this. Of course this was a collective failure on both sides of the House—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I do not know why hon. Members say, “Ah.” I take our responsibility for this—of course that is right. Part of what is required is that we all account for our actions. That is absolutely right.
Will hon. Members give me a moment?
The former Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), who might talk about this in the debate, did seek to reopen the inquiries both with the police and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but that did not happen. No one in the House can say that we should not have spoken out earlier.
The Leader of the Opposition started by striking, as the Prime Minister did earlier, a tone of statesmanlike non-partisanship, and he had the attention of the House. Will he, as the Prime Minister did earlier, acknowledge the sins of his party, as ours, in the past 20 years and give a small apology for the excesses of media manipulation on his side of the House?
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for that. May I take him back to the beginning of his speech when he talked about faith in institutions? Does he agree that credit should be given to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, who felt that the issue of leadership was at stake in the Metropolitan police and therefore resigned so that that service could move on? Surely the former Commissioner should be given credit for what he did.
Let me make progress and then I might give way to the hon. Gentleman.
We need to change our press, our police and our politics. First, on the press, the questions we must all ask as we debate this are not just about who acted illegally and when, which is properly a matter for the police investigation. They must get to the bottom of what happened. The inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson must do its work, but we cannot just ask why it happened—we also need to ask why that culture was so widespread. In my view, the answer is relatively simple.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will just listen to my speech for a bit longer.
Some of the institutions involved thought they were above the law and beyond responsibility. A police inquiry and a judge-led inquiry should not be the only way for an ordinary citizen to get effective redress when the press do them wrong. One of the symptoms of what happened is the fact that Press Complaints Commission—the Prime Minister and I both recognise this—was a wholly ineffective body in giving the ordinary citizen redress. I do not want a country where there has to be a police inquiry or judge-led inquiry to give redress to that citizen.
Let me say something about press regulation. Why did the PCC fail? This is important, because the PCC was aware of the allegations that were being made. It failed because it had no powers of investigation, so although it now believes it was lied to, it could do nothing to check the veracity of what it had been told. It failed because despite the evidence of bad practice, nothing was done by an organisation that—let us be candid about this—was not sufficiently independent of current editors.
I do not believe—I echo the words of the Prime Minister on this point—that it should be for politicians to decide what our press reports. That is an important principle of a free society and of our society.
I want to make some progress.
It is commonly agreed that we need a new system of regulation. Whether we call it self-regulation or independent regulation, which is a term the Prime Minister coined and that I like, in substance it is about ethics being overseen by an independent group of people who are not current editors, with investigatory powers so that the regulatory body cannot simply be lied to as the PCC says that it was and—this is an important point—with the power to enforce compensation and prominent redress. That point is really important. The standards of accuracy in our press will be much encouraged if there is prominence of apology and admission of error rather than their being buried on page 42, which is what happens.
The issue, which the Prime Minister touched on in his speech, goes beyond press regulation. Indeed, Government Members have asked me about this. Why did not more of us speak out earlier? The answer is what we all know and used to be afraid to say: News International was too powerful. It owned 40% of the newspaper market before the closure of the News of the World. It owns two thirds of the pay TV market through 39% of the Sky platform and Sky News. The Communications Act 2003 rightly stops an organisation holding an ITV licence and more than 20% of newspapers, but it does not apply to digital channels. One might say that it was an analogue Act in a digital age. The Act needs to be updated as such a concentration of power is unhealthy. If one thing comes out of what we have seen in the past two weeks and over many years, it must be that we understand the point about concentrations of power in our society because large concentrations of power are more likely to lead to abuses of power.
My concern is that we preserve the freedom of the press. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned News International specifically, but we know that Mirror Group and the Daily Mail were equally culpable according to the 2006 report. He talks about the media market, but we know that the BBC has a dominant position. His comments are beginning to look like he is conducting a vendetta against News International when we need to consider the media as a whole.
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point. Of course, the police inquiry and the judge-led inquiry must look across all the newspapers. I want to pick him up on his point about the BBC, however. The BBC is much more tightly bound by public interest guidelines than newspapers. That is right, because there is a distinction—I disagree with the former Labour leader, Lord Kinnock, on this point—between broadcasting and newspapers. I think that distinction is likely to be maintained and I support that. We should be careful, however, about lumping the BBC in with all this because it is in a different category.
In yesterday’s Committee, Rebekah Brooks said that she had not had a single meeting with the Prime Minister in Downing street but that she had visited the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), six times each year. The Leader of the Opposition was a key member of the previous Government. Did he share his concerns about the power of News International with the former Prime Minister?
I do not think that was the most helpful intervention from the point of view of the Prime Minister. The reason Rebekah Brooks was not coming to Downing street was that she was seeing him in Oxfordshire and elsewhere. It is fairly obvious, is it not? I think we should save the Prime Minister embarrassment and move on.
Let me turn to the police. Confidence and respect in policing is vital. Recent events have created a cloud and it is important that the excellent work being done by police officers is not tarnished.
I will make a little more progress, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient.
The independence and impartiality of the police has been a cornerstone of the force stretching back to Sir Robert Peel. That is why recent events are so disturbing: allegations of payments to police by the press; a culture where it appears the relationship between press and police is too close and information is passed inappropriately; and questions about why the first police investigation failed and why it has taken so long to put things right.
There are now four different investigations considering these issues. That is a good thing and I hope they proceed as speedily as they can given all the inquiries. If they can be co-ordinated or brought together, I am sure that would be a good idea, too. Let me make one observation, though. There are cultural issues that must be looked at in our police. Just like in newspapers, there will always be things that go wrong. The question we must answer for victims such as the Dowlers is whether the right system of redress is in place for the victims and whether they have confidence in it. The situation is similar to that in the PCC and that is why we need a stronger Independent Police Complaints Commission. It is currently a complaints body with limited powers and a huge case load and it clearly has not been able or willing—probably able—to act proactively enough. As well as reforms to our press and to our complaints system for the press, we must also reform the police.
The Leader of the Opposition rightly talks about the independence of the police, yet he seems to have expected that, during the course of a police inquiry, the assistant commissioner would go and see the Prime Minister and talk about the emerging evidence. It seems, extraordinarily, that the assistant commissioner had a similar expectation. Can the Leader of the Opposition tell us whether that is the way it went on in Labour years? Is that what was happening? If not, will he say now that he thinks the police should be truly independent?
This is not about the operational independence of the police and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman wants to return to these issues because it is the wall of silence that was erected around the Prime Minister that meant that he did not hear the facts about Andy Coulson, which were facts that he should have heard. We need reforms—
I think I might get to the point on which the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene, if he gives me a moment.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s decision to be more transparent about meetings with executives and editors. I have published all my meetings since I became leader of the Labour party and I say to the Prime Minister that of course I will go back to the general election.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman will publish all the meetings he had with the media before he became leader, because transparency is the greatest disinfectant. Will he confirm to the House whether, when he was running to lead his party, he met any of the Murdochs or anyone from News International?
I did have one lunch with News International and it was profoundly unsuccessful, as people will have gathered. I can be accused of many things, but I do not think that a cosy, sweetheart relationship with The Sun newspaper—Red Ed and all that—is one of them.
On the question of relationships between politicians and the media, what lessons does the Leader of the Opposition think we should draw from the fact that when the Prime Minister published the list of the meetings that he had, 26 were with people from News International, but just one was with a person from the BBC?
People will draw their own conclusions, and my hon. Friend has put the point on the record.
I want to deal with two or three important points about transparency. The Prime Minister, in his statement, surprised me by talking about the very important article—I raised it in my statement—that The New York Times published on 1 September. He said—of course, the record should be checked on this—that there was no new information in The New York Times. I do not believe that to be correct. Indeed, I have The New York Times article here; I want to read a brief extract from it:
“One former editor said Coulson talked freely with colleagues about the dark arts, including hacking. ‘I’ve been to dozens if not hundreds of meetings with Andy’ when the subject came up, said the former editor…The editor added that when Coulson would ask where a story came from, editors would reply, ‘We’ve pulled the phone records’ or ‘I’ve listened to the phone messages.’”
That goes to a very important issue, because my charge against the Prime Minister is that there was lots of information publicly available. There were warnings from the Deputy Prime Minister, who sat very glumly during the Prime Minister’s statement. There were warnings given that the Prime Minister ignored. I will happily give way to the Prime Minister if he wants to correct the record about The New York Times, because this was a very serious, major investigation by a global newspaper, and the Prime Minister’s comments earlier do not reflect the gravity of the allegations in The New York Times article. The Prime Minister seems otherwise engaged.
I want to make some progress. There are unanswered questions about all the allegations, all the credible evidence that was given to the Prime Minister, including in The New York Times, and the warnings from the Deputy Prime Minister. I will even give way to the Deputy Prime Minister if he wants to tell us about the warnings that he gave. It would be nice to hear from him, because he has not looked very happy during this debate, and if he wants to share his unhappiness with us, I am sure that we would all love to hear it. He is saving it for his memoirs.
There are unanswered questions about BSkyB. There are real questions about what conversations—important conversations—the Prime Minister had about BSkyB with James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks; he should have raised that. These questions are not going to go away. They will continue until he answers them.
Today the House rises for more than six weeks for the summer recess. We will debate other issues, and rightly so, but we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that this is not an event where the whirlwind blows through and nothing really changes. We have to bring about lasting change. That is the duty we owe to the victims of phone hacking. It is a duty we owe to the people of this country.
Today’s debate is part of a long saga that probably still has some way to go. That saga began, arguably, with the arrest of Clive Goodman, and before that, possibly with the Operation Motorman inquiries to the Information Commissioner, or before that, with the inquiry held by my predecessor as Chairman of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), in which Rebekah Brooks first spoke about payments to police officers.
The Select Committee spent a long time yesterday taking evidence from Rupert and James Murdoch, and from Rebekah Brooks—something like five hours in total. I apologise to the House for the fact that, unlike the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz)—my colleague who chairs the Home Affairs Committee—we have not yet managed to produce a report. We may well still do so.
We have not produced a report, but we have had some success. Yesterday, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, the Murdochs admitted for the first time that News International was paying the legal fees of the private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire. It is now being reported that that has stopped. Does he agree that that is absolutely right and proper, because one cannot apologise to the Dowler family on the one hand and still pay the fees of the private investigator who hacked their phones on the other?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I was going to deal with that matter. He is absolutely right to identify it. I thought it important that Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks came to Parliament. We were warned about legal difficulties and their inability to answer questions. I have to say that I think they genuinely tried to prove as helpful as they could be within those constraints, but the important thing is that they, the leaders of the company at the time, came to give an account of that company—in Parliament, in public. That could only have happened in this place, and that is one of the reasons why Select Committees have an important role. I was therefore particularly sad that their appearance was marred by the incident to which Mr Speaker has referred. It did not serve the interests of those who dislike Rupert and James Murdoch; it distracted attention from the very important matters about which we were attempting to probe them, and the fact that they were treated in that way reflected no credit on Parliament or the Committee. The inquiry that Mr Speaker has spoken about is extremely important.
We asked very detailed questions. There are three areas where there are still significant questions to be asked. One, which was raised by a number of my colleagues, is why the payments to Gordon Taylor and Max Clifford were so large, and why subsequent payments to other victims of phone hacking were considerably smaller. The second is on the issue that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) raised: the continuing payment of Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees. I am delighted to hear from the hon. Gentleman that that has now stopped.
The third issue—another one that the hon. Gentleman was very robust in pursuing—concerns the e-mails handed over to the solicitors Harbottle & Lewis for examination, which led to Harbottle & Lewis writing to News International to say that the e-mails contained no evidence that any other person was involved. This morning I received a letter from Harbottle & Lewis, which says that it
“asked News International’s solicitors at BCL Burton Copeland whether their client is prepared to waive the confidentiality and legal professional privilege which attaches to their Correspondence”.
That request has been refused. I understand that that refusal was made before Rupert and James Murdoch gave evidence to the Committee. I hope that in the light of the assurance that Rupert and James Murdoch gave us of their wish to co-operate as much as possible, the firm will review that decision and perhaps release Harbottle & Lewis from the arrangement, so that we can see the correspondence.
It is not just Harbottle & Lewis; an inquiry was also undertaken by Burton Copeland—we have not seen the outcome—and the inquiry that News International undertook, in which it said it looked at 2,500 e-mails and failed to find any evidence. It would be interesting to learn further details of the rigour of that particular investigation. At the end of the day, it all boils down to whether one believes the evidence given to us. The Select Committee does not have access to e-mails on servers, or to the papers that were seized from Glenn Mulcaire, Jonathan Rees and other people. All we have is the testimony given to us by the witnesses. We certainly tested them yesterday for five hours. I think that testimony is now on the record, and people can judge.
I just worry that perhaps the hon. Gentleman is accepting at face value rather too readily what the Murdochs said yesterday in relation to corporate governance. The answer seemed to be that they did not know anything—that the company was too big for them to know about anything that was going on in the News of the World. It seems to me that that is a failure of corporate governance in the company, because the whole point of a non-executive director, or a director, is that they have to make sure that they know enough about their company to ensure that there is no criminality and that it always works within the law. The argument that they knew nothing is no defence.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. There was undoubtedly a failure of corporate governance, and that may well exercise the minds of the shareholders of News Corp, and perhaps even the American authorities.
Reference has been made to The New York Times article, which I remember well. Part of the problem was that the quotation that I think the Leader of the Opposition read out was from an unnamed former editor. Sean Hoare was named. He was the only individual who was. Sadly, the late Sean Hoare was an individual whose testimony some people felt might not be wholly reliable.
I know that it was widely believed that Sean Hoare’s testimony would not stand up in court.
I want to raise one other matter that relates to the actions that could have been taken by the previous Government. The one recommendation from the Information Commissioner, right back at the time of the “What price privacy?” report, was that the maximum penalty for breach of the Data Protection Act 1998 should be a custodial sentence. Press freedom is protected because there is a public interest defence in that Act. My understanding is that the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who was the Home Secretary at the time, accepted that recommendation and it was Government policy to impose a custodial sentence as a maximum sentence, but he was then overruled by the then Prime Minister following pressure from the media.
The answer, which I will explain in more detail if I catch Mr Speaker’s eye, is that provisions to do both are on the statute book. They are in section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, and it is a matter for the Government to implement them. It is quite wrong for the Government to assert that we took no action. We did act, consistently, with the Information Commissioner’s report.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will elaborate, because he is right to say that the measure is on the statute book, but it would have required a statutory instrument, I think, to implement, and that SI was going to be introduced, but was then dropped following meetings that took place in Downing street between members of the media and the Prime Minister.
The two issues that we are debating this afternoon—freedom of the media and the honesty of the police—are both absolutely fundamental to a free society. Therefore, I welcome the inquiries and the judicial review. I urge a slight note of caution on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he says that he is contemplating whether politicians should be entirely removed from the process of assessing whether newspaper, press or media acquisitions or mergers should take place. There is a public interest test, and it is elected and accountable politicians who, ultimately, should determine the public interest. If politicians are entirely removed from the process, you have people who are unelected and unaccountable, and I am not sure that that is wholly desirable. However, I am sure that that is something that the review will wish to examine in due course.
I would also like to say a brief word in defence of the Press Complaints Commission, which does good work for many individuals who have specific complaints against single reports that have appeared in newspapers. It is a good complaint-handling organisation, but it was never intended to deal with the regular systemic breaches of the code, indeed breaches of the law, that are now being exposed. However, the fact that it did the job that it was asked to do well does not mean that we do not now need a stronger and more independent regulator, and I do believe that we have reached that time.
There is a requirement in the Press Complaints Commission code that an adjudication of the PCC should be given due prominence. Three years ago the Select Committee recommended that that meant that it should at the very least be on the same page as the original article, or even earlier in the paper, but certainly not later. So yes, I agree with my hon. Friend.
It is right that we examine these matters, but we need to bear in mind that the media in this country are changing beyond recognition. The power of online distribution of news, which is where the advertising is going and where people wishing to find out the news are going, is changing the media landscape. The truth is that we may not have newspapers for very much longer in this country. Certainly there will be a number of closures because of the dramatic shift, the structural change, taking place in the media. Therefore we need to be careful to ensure that when we set up a regulatory structure, it takes account of the new landscape, not the old.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale). I congratulate him and his Committee on the excellent work that they have done in their inquiry. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing the House to sit for this extra day, and the Prime Minister for coming to the House and making such a very long statement and answering so many questions.
Yesterday was a good day for Parliament. Along the corridor of the Grimond Room and the Wilson Room, the Select Committees for Culture, Media and Sport and for Home Affairs were simultaneously holding hearings. We in our Committee did not have the drama of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing, and I know that you, Mr Speaker, have instituted a security investigation. Perhaps there were no police officers around because most of them were giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. We took evidence from both the former commissioner and the former assistant commissioner, and there were a lot of police officers there.
I pay tribute to the work of my Committee Clerks, and to the Committee. We basically locked the doors in the Grimond Room to ensure that we agreed the report that is before the House today. I will speak only briefly about these issues. The report has 122 paragraphs and it was published at 5 o’clock this morning. But there is an opportunity for those participating in this debate to look at the report’s conclusions, which we began as early as last October. I thank members of the Committee, three of whom—the hon. Members for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) and for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe)— are in the House today, for the work that they have done. Others, I am sure, will come into the debate.
The report’s conclusions centre on three areas—first, the police, secondly, the mobile phone companies, and thirdly, we touched on News International, only in respect of its co-operation or lack of co-operation with the police. We found a catalogue of failures by the Metropolitan police. We looked at the first investigation and we took evidence from Mr Clarke, a senior officer, very distinguished in relation to counter-terrorism. But Mr Clarke felt that he could not proceed with his inquiry, the first inquiry—we provided a useful timeline for hon. Members just after the first chapter, which sets out when these inquiries took place—because he felt that he was deliberately thwarted by News International. We took evidence from Mr Hayman, and the report speaks for itself in respect of his cavalier attitude to the Committee, and indeed to his relationship with News International. We questioned the relationship between the police and New International whereby there appeared to be a revolving door. Former senior police officers ended up writing articles in News International titles, and former employees of News International ended up working for the Metropolitan police and advising the commissioner for £1,000 a day.
The second inquiry, we felt, was also very poor. To give him his credit, John Yates was very clear. He used more colourful language when speaking to Sunday newspapers, but we thought that it was a serious misjudgment that on 9 July he spent only eight hours looking at the evidence. He denied that that was a review and said that it was the establishment of facts, but we were clear when we took evidence from Sir Paul Stephenson that no time limit was placed on John Yates. He could have taken longer. Indeed, when we saw the DPP, Keir Starmer, afterwards, he was very clear that John Yates had contacted him after 9 July, because Keir Starmer, in preparing his evidence for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, had asked John Yates to come and talk to him, with leading counsel, to decide whether there was a case to reopen the matter on 9 July. Sadly, the lack of co-operation from News International continues. As the hon. Member for Maldon has just said, it is refusing to waive client confidentiality, and refusing to allow Harbottle & Lewis to release the exchange of correspondence.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back to 2006? Did he find as part of his investigation that the Attorney-General had been informed in 2006—on 30 May, to be precise—that a vast array of numbers had been tapped by investigators employed by News International? The then Attorney-General’s approval was sought for a much narrower focused investigation, which plainly, by implication, was given. Is it not clear that Ministers knew in 2006 that there was a great array of tapped phone numbers that could have given rise to a wider investigation, but they never allowed the police, or instructed the police to carry it out?
No witness who came before the Committee has said that to us, but I am happy to write to the previous Attorney-General to ask whether in fact he or she—I have forgotten who it was at the time—was informed. Clearly the Director of Public Prosecutions was informed, and the Attorney-General has superintendence over the DPP.
I will not give way a second time, but I am happy to talk to the hon. and learned Gentleman later, or if he catches Mr Speaker’s eye he could make his points then. I shall be happy to write to the previous Attorney-General if that helps.
We come to the end of the second police investigation and the failure of the police to inspect the evidence in their possession adequately and thoroughly. The risk was that waiting for a certain length of time with, as Mr Yates described it, bin bags full of evidence, there is the possibility that the Metropolitan police would have disposed of that evidence. Just in time, Operation Weeting was established. We all agreed that Sue Akers gave excellent evidence to the Committee. We want to ensure that she has all the resources she can possibly need. That is one of our recommendations. Although when I last pressed the Prime Minister on the issue, at the Dispatch Box a week ago, he said that he was leaving it up to the Metropolitan police to decide on resources, Sue Akers really does need more resources. There are 12,800 names; she has cleared 170 and is clearing them at the rate of 30 a month. We made a calculation, which is not in the report, that that process could go on for several decades. It will take at least a decade unless we give her the resources that she needs. We have confidence in Sue Akers. We believe that she will complete her investigation properly.
There are many issues in the report, but I want to highlight two relevant points. The first concerns the arguments that went on throughout the whole process between the Director of Public Prosecutions and the police. The hon. Member for Rochester and Strood pursued that issue vigorously with all our witnesses, and I am sure if he catches your eye Mr Speaker, he will be able to enlighten the House on what he and the Committee saw as the problem. Suffice to say that it is not helpful when such things happen. We should like to see the Crown Prosecution Service and the police working closely together.
We have heard that there was a culture of too much closeness between those in power and those in News International. Did the Committee hear evidence that a political steer was given to the police to direct them away from investigations? I say that in the light of the fact that Members on the Opposition Front Bench today seem to think it appropriate for the Prime Minister to engage in operational discussions with the police while they are carrying out an inquiry.
We heard no such evidence, as the hon. Gentleman can confirm if he reads the report.
My final point is about mobile phone companies. They have a responsibility to inform their customers if they have been hacked. We saw a difference of approach between the big providers; Members may want to check their contracts. Only O2 informed customers when their phones were hacked. The others either did not inform their customers or waited for the police to tell them that the inquiry was over. Their customers remained uninformed about the hacking, which is why there is such a build-up of information.
I agree with what the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have said today. Our concern is that the victims were not put first. If we had put the victims first in 2006, if Mr Hayman, Mr Clarke and Mr Yates had done that, we would never have got into the position where all the evidence was not thoroughly looked at. I welcome the inquiry and I have no objection to any member of the panel mentioned in the House today. Putting Shami Chakrabarti on the same panel as a former chief constable is a very good idea; it contains a good balance. I hope that recommendations will be made as quickly as possible. I am sure the Prime Minister is the last person in the world to want this to drag on.
The victims want closure. After such a long debate, and such a long statement and endless questions, we all want closure, so the sooner we get the investigations completed the better—but as the Committee says, we must never forget the victims. They are the people who have suffered the most.
I want to raise three points. Although I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on his Committee’s report, one or two loose ends seem not to have been followed up. On 30 May 2006, a Crown Prosecution file note recorded that the police had written a briefing paper informing the Attorney-General and the then Director of Public Prosecutions that
“a vast number of unique voicemail numbers belonging to high-profile individuals (politicians, celebrities) have been identified as being accessed without authority. These may be the subject of wider investigation.”
In a memorandum dated 8 August 2006, a senior Crown Prosecution Service lawyer wrote:
“It was recognised early in this case that the investigation was likely to reveal a vast array of offending behaviour.”
However, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police concluded that aspects of the investigation could be focused on a discrete area of offending relating to two officials at the palace and the suspects Goodman and Mulcaire.
From those documents, it is absolutely manifest that the Attorney-General in the previous Government, who sits when appropriate in the Cabinet, was informed that there was “a vast array” of offending behaviour in which hundreds of celebrities, Members of the House and of the other place and others had had their phones accessed without authority. Why was nothing done?
The Leader of the Opposition has left the Chamber. Can he or former members of the Cabinet tell us whether the Attorney-General in 2006 brought to the attention of his colleagues the fact that a vast array of offending behaviour had been committed by News International but it was not intended that it be investigated by the police? The Attorney-General has a solemn duty to draw to the attention of the Cabinet such matters if they affect the public interest. The Attorney-General has a right of oversight of the CPS—the ultimate resort—and could at least instruct that advice be given to the police on such matters. Why was nothing done?
I invite the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee to call for that evidence and to examine it closely, because it seems to me a matter of the most pressing public interest.
The hon. and learned Gentleman invites members of the then Cabinet at large to say whether the information was ever shared with them by the then Attorney-General. I can only speak for myself. I served in that Cabinet and subsequent ones and on no occasion do I recall that Attorney-General, or any Attorney-General, ever informing members of the Cabinet either at a formal meeting or informally, of an ongoing investigation. Even when I was Home Secretary, the Attorney-General of the day would never have informed me about an investigation and decisions he or she had made, nor would I have sought that information.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that information, but the fact remains that the Attorney-General under the previous Government appears to have countenanced a prosecution strategy when he and the then Director of Public Prosecutions knew that the voicemails of hundreds of individuals had been accessed.
When the former Home Secretary spoke a moment ago, he used the words, “or informally”. Does my hon. Friend think that one aspect that may need examining is whether the matter was another subject that fell into the “sofa Government” category, and that the Attorney-General may have spoken to the Prime Minister or one or two others, but it was not brought before the full Cabinet?
The matter needs to be closely examined, and the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee has taken it on board. With the greatest respect to the Attorney-General at the time, if he was informed of the matter, he should have interested himself in exactly how the investigation would be conducted. On the face of it, an enormous amount of wrongdoing was simply ignored. The police appear to have proposed a strategy, which would, as the briefing paper put it to the Attorney-General, “ring-fence” Mulcaire and Goodman and exclude a whole raft of serious criminal wrongdoing from investigation. That may well have affected Members.
I do not know to whom the Committee refers when it says that neither Ministers nor the police escalated the matter. As the Committee put it, if Ministers at the time had taken those issues sufficiently seriously, the matter would have been investigated. The truth would have been discovered then and we could have avoided a whole series of events that we now know unfolded.
My second point is about the review suggested by then Deputy Assistant Commissioner Yates. The Home Affairs Committee has rightly judged, in tone and substance, its criticisms of Mr Yates and Mr Hayman. There are serious questions to be asked about why an investigation or a review—I appreciate that it was not a formal review—that was carried out in eight hours apparently failed to read material that, as the former Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions was able to determine in a few minutes, gave rise to the gravest illegalities. On the face of it, that is either wilful blindness or rank incompetence. Whatever the reason, Mr Yates’s resignation was right and done for proper reasons. It is inconceivable that, if the exercise had been carried out properly, the material would not have come to light in 2009. Questions arise about the closeness of officers of the Metropolitan police to News International and whether that deflected and deterred them from a rigorous analysis of the evidence that had been in their possession since 2006. It was not only in their possession, but, as the memorandum of 30 May 2006 to the Attorney-General shows, they had discovered that it included
“a vast array of offending behaviour.”
I do not know many of the details that my hon. and learned Friend has given to the House, but the Select Committee heard that a great deal of the evidence was never examined, either in the original investigation or in the course of the review, so it could not be known what possible criminal behaviour had occurred, in addition to the hundreds and thousands of names involved. The e-mails that my hon. and learned Friend mentioned are slightly different. News International supplied them internally and they had not been held by the police. They were supplied to the solicitors who gave them in May to the former DPP, who quickly saw wrongdoing in them.
My hon. Friend is right that new material was supplied by Harbottle & Lewis, but I am referring to material that was in the possession of the police in 2006—mobile phone records, about which they told the then Attorney-General, “Look we’ve got a vast array of offending behaviour here. What are we going to do?” The instruction—or at least the approval—that came from on high appears to have been, “Confine it. Keep out the penumbra of offending behaviour you could examine and confine it to Mulcaire and Goodman.” That was wrong. With hindsight, we now see that that judgment was fundamentally flawed. The matter should have been investigated. Why was it not?
One cannot resist the conclusion that, until it became apparent that ordinary members of the public—Milly Dowler, soldiers who fought for this country—had also been subject to hacking, the Labour Government’s approach was that politicians and celebrities were fair game, so it was not a serious matter. The Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee reported that Mr Clarke gave as his justification the fact that he did not have many resources and that he was also dealing with terrorism at the time. Frankly, the clear impression is given that the matter was not very serious. One suspects that that is why no action was taken.
It has been suggested that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff was wrong to decline an invitation to be briefed in 2010. The surprise is that the offer was ever made, not that it was declined. The chief of staff did exactly the right thing. In 2010, when The New York Times published the report, the Prime Minister was right: he needed evidence. He could not act on anything else.
In his speech, the Prime Minister reminded us of his previous incarnation working for ITV. That reminded me of the first broadcasting measure that I considered while in opposition last time round, when the technical director of ITV told us what was happening about convergence. I do not often agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) but I support his early-day motion, which I willingly signed because it is important to deal with the issue on a multi-media basis. The world in which we live—indeed, the world in which we lived in the early 1990s, though no Member of Parliament had adequately recognised what was happening—means that the nature of our relationship with broadcasters and the providers of other media outlets has fundamentally changed. That is a hugely important aspect, on which the House needs to reflect.
A couple of issues have cropped up that, I think as a result of that observation, are increasingly important. We need to ensure that during the inquiry, all records, particularly electronic records, are made available at all stages. I was disappointed to hear, in a response earlier, that Harbottle & Lewis have not been given freedom by News International to release documents that have come their way. Putting restrictions on Harbottle & Lewis undermines the credibility of the apology given by News International. I urge my colleagues in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and the Home Affairs Committee to keep on pressing that one, and push News International to change its position.
I want to focus my remarks on the technical issues of hacking. When, on 6 September 2010, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) was granted an urgent question,
“To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the Metropolitan police investigation into phone hacking by the News of the World newspaper.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 23.],
a very productive exchange took place. After the Home Secretary’s response, my hon. Friend, responding to three claims, corrected the Home Secretary’s understanding. Claim No. 1 was that there was no new evidence; there was. Claim No. 2 was that people were cleared by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee; they were not. Claim No. 3 was that a single, rogue reporter was responsible; clearly he was not. That was known in September 2010 and that knowledge has developed since.
In questions following the statement I asked the Home Secretary whether she had any knowledge of how many of the—at that stage 91—PIN numbers that had got into the public domain were default numbers and how many were obtained as a result of what, technically, I would call a hacking exercise as distinct from an invasion of privacy, but the answer was not forthcoming. At that time alarm bells should have rung, because the Home Secretary, and certainly her advisers, must have been aware that there were not 91 default PIN numbers available; only a handful of default numbers were used, one each by the major operators and perhaps a couple more in special account situations. At that stage it was clear that a substantial number had been hacked by sophisticated means, not just by knowledge of default numbers.
We knew at that time, from a response given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), the previous Home Secretary, that nearly 3,000 people were on the list of possible hacked victims. We hear that the figure is now 12,800. A substantial number of those operations have clearly been undertaken by extremely sophisticated means, and the seriousness of that point is that it brings us back to several fundamental questions.
First, and very obviously, where did the phone numbers come from? A lot of colleagues who might be victims give their phone numbers out willy-nilly; more fool all of us for being so publicity-hungry. Perhaps we too readily give out our mobile numbers, but an awful lot of people, like the Dowler family, or victims of the 7/7 bombings and other potential victims, have had their basic telephone number—not a PIN number—released by a third party. There is a very serious point, which goes to the heart of part of the investigation—to what extent should we look at the role of the police in releasing those numbers? Some numbers were accessed by using published numbers plus the default system, some were technically hacked at a very sophisticated level, and some must have come from the police.
In the report that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee released, there is a transcript of a conversation that took place between Glenn Mulcaire and the mobile operators, which shows that force is not used; it is blagging, where investigators pass themselves off as someone else and get the mobile company to reveal the PIN number. Obviously, we need to address that problem with the mobile companies.
The hon. Gentleman is right, because the fourth strand is indeed the way in which the mobile companies operate security. He attended a demonstration that I staged recently on one use of malware. We have a lot to learn in this place, and it is incumbent on us to look at all four strands as part of these inquiries and ensure that we are better informed, to ensure that when we consider legislation in future, we get to the bottom of these extremely serious issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East has, by his persistence, done not just the House a favour, but the country. He and I have had disagreements on how technical legislation ought to be formed, but this is one matter on which the House can unite. We should ensure that every strand of inquiry is properly undertaken, and that the subsequent legislation, which will undoubtedly be necessary, covers all those points.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I are very grateful that Mr Speaker has given us the opportunity of these debates. I follow the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) in saying that I understand exactly the arguments for proper technical investigation.
The House knows that on at least two occasions, and by two different newspaper organisations, I was the subject of the illegal acquisition of information. The second time, my phone was hacked. I was one of the people who gave evidence in the trial that led to the conviction and imprisonment of Mr Mulcaire and Mr Goodman, but I hope that nothing I say today is prejudiced by vengefulness. I have a view, and have always had a view, that the issue is not about us—the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I have often made the point that we can easily defend ourselves—but about our constituents, friends and families, and the people who left and received the messages. We now discover that it is also about ordinary people who were not just in the public eye, but at their most vulnerable and in their time of greatest need, when they least deserved to have their privacy invaded in the most gratuitous and offensive way.
In a second—I shall continue, if I may.
I welcome what the Prime Minister said about the inquiry being extended to all police forces and not just the Metropolitan police, and to all forms of media. I am clear that it should also include looking at appropriate Cabinet papers—I hope that the appropriate releases will be made—party papers, and papers held by previous Ministers in all Administrations. Why? The Prime Minister said that, “There are issues of excessive closeness to media groups and media owners where both Labour and Conservatives have to make a fresh start”, but my Liberal Democrat Friends and others feel that there are not just “issues”, but evidence of dangerous and unhealthy “closeness” in Administrations for at least the past 20 years. Colleagues in both Houses—I am not claiming this for myself—have made that point at every available opportunity. All Liberal Democrat party leaders of the past 20 years, from Lord Ashdown, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, have made that point continuously with other colleagues, on the record, for the past 20 years.
My right hon. Friend is right, and there is clear evidence for that, and I can perhaps use his intervention to elaborate.
The Competition Bill that was introduced by the Labour Government in 1997 dealt with predatory pricing, including among petrol retailers and supermarkets. My colleagues in the other place, led by Lord McNally, who is now a Justice Minister, managed to pass an amendment that would have included newspapers. The amendment was taken out by the Labour Government—although there were some Labour rebels—when the Bill returned to the Commons. It was absolutely clear that the Labour Government did not want to touch the media empires when they were imposing a tougher competitive regime on other sectors of British industry. I am very clear that that relates to the obvious and evidenced relationships that started under the Thatcher and Major Administrations and continued under the Blair and Brown Administrations. Obviously, such relationships also continued into the beginning of this Government as far as the Conservative party is concerned.
My colleagues and I were clear about that and we tried to do something about it. Lord Taylor of Goss Moor tried to deal with the competitive pricing issue in the House of Commons, and in 1998, Lord McNally said very clearly:
“Concentration of power, married with the advance in technologies, offers a challenge to democratic governments and free societies which we have scarcely begun to address.”
How right he was. Those debates also went to the dominance of particular newspaper titles and the influence of their owners, particularly in relation to the Murdoch empire.
I agree absolutely with the right hon. Gentleman about ensuring that we have a suitable spread of media ownership so that we do not have a concentration of power, but does he agree that a concentration of media power in no way excuses the powerful from exercising their own moral sense and making the right decisions? The idea that a public inquiry might have been put off because of party interest, rather than the national interest, is nothing short of disgraceful, if true.
I absolutely agree. The speech that the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) made in the other day’s debate was not at all persuasive about that point. There were calls for a judicial inquiry from my right hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr Sanders) and others. That was on the previous Government’s agenda, so it could have been held, just as legislation could have been implemented following the Information Commissioner’s report and recommendations. However, we had neither an inquiry nor the implementation of higher penalties.
I will not, because I want to make some progress, but if I have any spare time, of course I will.
We gave warnings from 2009 that the fit and proper person test needed to be applied more robustly and that we needed to be aware of the abuse of positions. I just record that right up to last year’s general election, and indeed to December 2010, my right hon. Friends the Deputy Prime Minister and for Twickenham (Vince Cable) assiduously made the case that there was something very rotten in the way in which we regulated the media industry.
The warnings from our party about Andy Coulson started in May 2009. They were made on record and off the record. We regret that they were not heeded, but the decision was not for us, but for the Prime Minister, and he explained it today. As a postscript, however, let me say that from all that I know, have read and have heard, Ed Llewellyn’s role has been entirely beyond reproach throughout. I do not think that anything that he did or did not do can be regarded as inappropriate in the context of the investigations.
My right hon. Friend says that the fit and proper person test needs to be applied more robustly. Is he aware of any statements from Ofcom that suggest that it has sought to apply the test at any time and that it has issued a judgment in such a case?
I wanted to make some comments about where we should go, so let me start with the media and Ofcom. The existing legislation needs to be improved because the way in which a fit and proper person test—either corporate or individual—is formed is not clear, so it is difficult to apply. My hon. Friend asks me whether the test is assiduously applied over the period for which a licence is held. In theory it is, because Ofcom will say that it does that, but it is not obvious that there is a process of regular review. In addition, things can change, such as if people commit criminal offences, so we need a more transparent process.
I will see if I have time, but I want to set out what needs to be done.
We need to look again at the question of excessive market share, and we need separately to consider broadcasting, television, the new media and the written press. We must be absolutely clear that that does not mean that we should be hostile to international ownership —that would be an inappropriate and nationalistic view—but the same rules should apply to elements of the press whether they are domestically or internationally owned.
We need to be absolutely clear that the media must put their house in order—the Attorney-General recently had to intervene on such a matter—by stopping any reporting that presumes that people are guilty when that has not been proved. That applies to all of us—I have tried to be careful about such issues—whether in the political context or otherwise. There have been scandalous examples of people being presumed guilty before the courts have considered their case. In addition, as has been said, there is no proper complaint process with a right of reply. It is imperative that any withdrawal is published by the press in the same size and place as the inappropriate allegation.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) argued, I hope that the Government will review their future advertising policy. Whoever is in government should not place adverts with media outlets that have been found to be guilty of offences, or breaches of codes of conduct, because that would be entirely inconsistent.
Finally, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay said in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport yesterday, we must get to the bottom of the term, “wilful blindness”. The evidence that we heard yesterday, as has been argued, suggested that the people at the top were saying, “I knew nothing” and were not even asking about what was going on further down the chain. That is unacceptable. Chief executives, chairmen and executive directors have responsibility and they should exercise it.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) has argued, we must end windfall payments, bonuses and pay-offs when people leave the service because they have broken the rules. We must end the way in which the police tip the media off about arrests so that the media turn up to film them or photograph them. We must make sure that the police do not brief people so that individuals who have not been proved guilty are in the headlines as if they were. We clearly need a better complaints procedure. The police service, not just the Met, must have much better corporate responsibility.
I want to deal with three issues, the first of which is the Prime Minister’s opaque answers to the very straight question about whether in the course of his 26 meetings with representatives of News International the BSkyB bid was discussed.
The Prime Minister is trying, understandably, to develop a reputation for straight dealing, but I am afraid that that was not what we saw. He was all over the place, relying on suggestion. In one answer, he said that he had not acted outside the ministerial code—that was not the question. In another, he relied on an answer given by Rebekah Brooks. The answer to that question is very straightforward—it is either yes or no—and I hope that the Minister will provide it when he winds up the debate.
Secondly, I want to consider what followed the Information Commissioner’s report on breaches of data protection rules in 2006. It is incorrect to state, as the Conservative research department did in its briefing this morning, that we took no action. It is important that the House understands that we did take action, as we agreed with the report, and in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 we introduced powers to increase the penalties for a breach of section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998 from a fine to up to two years’ imprisonment on indictment. There was a substantial objection to that provision from the media, who said that there was no proper public interest defence. Above all, may I tell the Conservatives, particularly the briefers in their research department, that a powerful objection was expressed by Members on the Conservative Front Bench? The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr Garnier), said in Committee:
“The facts and arguments that I have presented to the Committee suggested that existing penalties”—
which, as I said, were a fine only—
“are more than sufficient to deal with offences under section 55.”––[Official Report, Criminal Justice and Immigration Public Bill Committee, 27 November 2007; c. 585.]
I hope that we hear no more from Government Members suggesting that we did not take action.
There was then a negotiation between the Information Commissioner, media representatives and me. We tabled new provisions that provided for the public interest defence, entirely correctly, and we provided new penalties of imprisonment under section 76 of the 2008 Act, to be imposed by affirmative order. I consulted on that towards the end of the previous Parliament. We lost the election, and the duty to consider the consultations and make decisions fell to my successors. I assume that the consultations have concluded—if not, they should be concluded immediately—and the Secretary of State for Justice should come to the House to bring both parts of that provision into force.
I do not answer for those on the Conservative Front Bench, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport called unanimously for the Information Commissioner’s recommendation to be implemented. We welcome the fact that the Ministry of Justice has issued a consultation paper, but it is still my understanding that representatives of The Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and News International went to meet the Prime Minister to argue forcefully that that consultation should be dropped and that custodial sentences should not be imposed.
If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the previous Administration, what he says is exactly correct. It is certainly true that representatives went to see the Prime Minister. They also came to see me. I had a discussion with them—they were entitled to their view—and I said, “We will have a public interest defence, but we will also have this increase in penalties to two years’ imprisonment on the statute book,” and both happened. It is there on the face of the Act. I would have introduced—
It was not implemented at the time because we were required by the provisions which the Conservatives were desperate for—they would have done nothing. It was in the face of not only press opposition but Conservative opposition that I moved in the way I did to consider the matter. Both provisions went on the statute book, and both are there. I would have introduced both of them, had we won the election. Sadly, for this and other reasons, we failed to do so. It is up to my successor to follow that up.
In practice, in those circumstances, it probably could not have done. My only regret is that I listened too much to the Conservative Opposition. It is not a mistake I will make again.
On press regulation, I listened carefully to what the Prime Minister had to say. His formulation of independent regulation is a sensible one, if I may say so. As I wrote in an article in The Times on Monday, which was a synopsis of a lecture I gave last week, it is important that we do not frame the debate about press regulation in terms of four legs good, two legs bad, so to speak—between self-regulation, which is apparently good, and imposed regulation, which is apparently bad. We must have a balance between the two.
The press will always be subject to the general law—the law of defamation, the law of copyright, and the emerging law of privacy. That is entirely correct. It is also the case that there should be a high degree of self-regulation, but self-regulation, as we now know, cannot operate by itself because ultimately self-regulation is self-serving. The best proof of the failure of self-regulation is the fact that the Express newspaper group withdrew altogether from the Press Complaints Commission structure in January this year, rendering any possibility of sanction by the PCC nugatory.
So there has to be a statutory framework, but I suggest that that statutory framework can strengthen the freedom of the press if it is properly imposed. An independent press commission should be established, which should have a duty to protect and enhance the freedom of the press, as well as to protect the rights of individuals, particularly in respect of their privacy.
The membership of that body should not be appointed by Ministers or by Parliament. Instead, what should be established by law is an appointing committee at arm’s length from both that, in turn, on a formula, would appoint the independent members of that committee, and the majority of those members ought to be independent, not media representatives. As we have heard, the powers of that commission should include powers of investigation, powers to require a retraction and, in extremis, powers of financial penalty.
I profoundly disagree with my right hon. and noble Friend Lord Kinnock. There is not a parallel here between the broadcast media and the print media. That is a profound error. The broadcast media have to be statutorily regulated—apart from anything else, there is a shortage of spectrum and a high value on it. Of course, it has to be regulated, and in our culture, that regulation is subject to a requirement of balance. However, it would be antithetical to a democratic society to place a requirement of balance on the print media. Doing so, in turn, would also require newspapers to be licensed, which would be anathema.
Instead, we need the commission to establish these high standards. The Government should do what neither the Labour Government nor previous Governments going back more than 40 years did: follow the recommendations of the Younger commission and the late Sir David Calcutt’s committee in 1991 and put in place a tort of infringement of privacy, in addition to the development of a privacy law under the Human Rights Act 1998. Many will think that a slightly technical point, but it is of great importance. Each of us as citizens has direct rights if we are defamed or if our intellectual property rights to what we write are transgressed, but we do not have direct rights if our privacy is invaded. We should. The reforms that I have suggested, which I think can command support across the House—by the way, I am glad that the Press Complaints Commission said in The Times yesterday that it supports them too—could provide a basis for this House to make strong recommendations to Lord Leveson’s inquiry about the way forward.
I served on the Home Affairs Committee inquiry into this matter. I came to the inquiry straightforwardly; I had no previous involvement or personal interest in it. I heard the evidence given to the Committee and shared the conclusions that it came to and which I felt were justified by the evidence. I say with sadness that I am not satisfied with all the evidence that we heard from the police. I say that with sadness as somebody who has the greatest respect for the police. I do not believe that any taint has been put on the integrity of Sir Paul Stephenson or on the thousands of Metropolitan police officers who serve on the force, many of whom live in my constituency. However, questions remain unanswered about the conduct of the investigation, including the original investigation, which, as we now know, seems to have had catastrophic effects on the reputation of the police and, as we now know, on many individuals.
I heard the contribution from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox) and agreed with many of the questions that came to his mind. As he said—and this was the evidence that the Committee heard—a considerable amount of material was seized from Mulcaire and Goodman, but the police did not properly pursue investigations with the material that they had. Indeed, some of the large quantities of material was not investigated or read at all, it would appear. Nor did the police look for further potentially relevant material in the normal way by searching premises, seizing documents and interviewing people. We now know that such material might have been at hand because we heard the evidence from the former Director of Public Prosecutions—as it happens, he now works for News International as its counsel—who, when asked to advise on this matter, saw some of the material that had been in the hands of News International and after brief consideration advised that it contained criminal matters that had to be referred to the police. I think that that was in May 2011—that is what the chronology suggests—not in 2005-06 when the matter first came to light.
I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. I can show him the evidence if he wants. On 30 May 2006, the Attorney-General and the DPP were informed that there was a vast array of offending behaviour and that a vast number of telephone numbers in the possession of the police had been accessed without authority. However, there was a conscious decision to confine the investigation, even though they knew that hundreds of people, including Members of the House, had had their phones tapped.
I have to say, having heard the evidence, that the answer to my hon. and learned Friend’s point remains hanging in the wind. I am not satisfied with the explanations that we have heard, which will appear in the evidence that will be published by the Home Affairs Committee. One explanation that was given by a senior investigating officer in the case was that the police had other priorities, and this matter was not regarded as sufficiently important when set beside them. We have to accept that police resources are limited and the police have to determine their priorities, but their credibility on the matter is not assisted by what the senior investigating officer of the case wrote about it—incidentally, in a News International newspaper of which he had subsequently become an employee. I am referring to Mr Hayman, who said:
“In the original inquiry, my heart sank when I was told the accusations came from the Palace. This was not the time for a half-hearted investigation—we put our best detectives on the case and left no stone unturned as officials breathed down our neck.”
I believe that was inconsistent with the evidence that we heard from the police about the priorities that they set themselves at the time. That is the honest conclusion that I have come to on the basis of that evidence.
The Committee has gone as far as it can. I believe we have gone to the limits of what a Select Committee can achieve in carrying out an investigation. These questions now remain to be resolved by others in the course of the Leveson inquiry, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has rightly set up, and further criminal investigations must go forward under the direction of Sue Akers in Operation Weeting. In view of the evidence that we have now heard from the former DPP and others, I will not be surprised if evidence is uncovered of further phone tapping, further payments to officers and, I am afraid, possibly other offences involving the corruption of police officers. I hope that that is not the case, but the important thing for the reputation of the police, the good reputation of many honest officers and the public interest is that these matters are now fully investigated impartially and independently, and that those investigations are carried through to their conclusion.
We have heard a great deal about the press. One catastrophic effect of the original failed investigation, along with the failed review carried out by Mr Yates in 2006, was that senior police officers went to see representatives of The Guardian, which had been carrying out an investigation, effectively to try to put them off further investigations by persuading them that their investigation, which was based upon matters that were seeping out through the civil courts, was exaggerated and unjustified. It is to the credit of The Guardian, and particularly its journalist Nick Davies, that it persisted with the investigation. I say that as somebody who is no great sympathiser with The Guardian—I do not expect to receive an invitation to lunch there any time soon, and I do not know the people concerned. However, that was to their credit, and it was an illustration of the value of a free press.
That brings me to my next point. It is very important to keep the criminal side of this separate from the issues that arise in respect of the regulation and ownership of a diverse, free and robust press. The matters that we have been talking about are criminal matters, not just matters of comment or of insufficient comeback from the Press Complaints Commission. They are serious criminal matters involving a wide range of people—politicians, celebrities and, as we have heard, many ordinary members of the public often in tragic circumstances. Each case has to be properly investigated, and anybody who has committed offences has to be brought to justice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we must not forget that there is a presumption of innocence right at the core of our criminal justice system? It is all very well for us to debate matters and examine what speculation there is, but people are entitled to a fair trial in our country.
My hon. Friend is right, and that is why I have been very careful to refer to investigations that should take place, and which we now believe are taking place. We should not do anything that will either interfere with the proper course of those investigations or prejudice a fair trial for anybody who is brought to trial as a result of them. However, the question of a free and robust press is separate from that. An under-reaction would not be in the public interest, but neither would an overreaction, would could even be more damaging. We need a diverse, free and robust press that is unmuzzled.
Too great a concentration of broadcasting, which is so important, in one set of hands can be against the public interest. I heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement, and I agree completely with him. He made some very valuable contributions, particularly when he referred to the position of the BBC, which is a sensitive matter. I feel—I suppose I would, as a Conservative—that there has at times been a certain amount of bias, or a predisposition, in the editorial line of the BBC, and that certain matters that should have been investigated or highlighted have not been given proper attention. It is to the credit of the BBC that its present director-general has said that, looking back, the BBC did not do full justice to the issue of immigration.
My hon. Friend is right, and this is particularly true in the case of immigration. It is now accepted on all sides—including by the Leader of the Opposition and some of those who advise him—that proper immigration control is a matter of the greatest public importance, but it has not been sufficiently highlighted in the past. It is not the broadcasters but parts of the print press that have reflected public concern on that issue. The broadcasters were prepared to leave it alone, but some newspapers have had the courage to highlight the issue and reflect the public concern that is felt in many places.
I should like briefly to give the House a further example of an issue that is of huge interest to our constituents and of huge importance to the future of our country, but that is not dealt with properly by the BBC—namely, this country’s relationship with the European Union. The BBC’s coverage of the treaty of Lisbon and the debates on that matter in the House of Commons was pitiful. It pays no attention to many of our debates on European matters, and there seems to be a predisposition on the part of the BBC when it comes to matters relating to the European Union.
We must not merge the issues of the criminal conduct that has taken place with those relating to the freedom of the press. We need a free, robust and diverse press that can properly reflect the full range of opinions in this country, not just those that are predetermined by the BBC or by the narrow group of people who form the metropolitan elite and who fail to reflect the views of the overwhelming majority. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke for the country today on this subject. His reputation remains completely intact as a result of all this, and he has taken exactly the right approach to the investigations that he has set in hand and to the question of media ownership. I unreservedly commend his approach on those matters.
During the Prime Minister’s statement, several hon. Members, especially those seated on the Government Benches, asked whether this really matters. Let us face it, there are many other issues that are probably far more pressing and significant to our constituents, including jobs, the economy and the state of the national health service. For some, I admit, that list might also include Europe, although in my experience, Europe tends to be a long way down the list of things that really matter to my constituents. Crime is normally at the top. However, the tendency to downplay this issue over the past few years has fed into the cover-up that was originally done by News International, and that was a mistake. I fully understand why it has happened on occasion. Boris Johnson was very foolish to say that this was
“a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour party”
for party political gain.
In the end, we have seen the two most senior police officers in this country lose their jobs—one of whom, I think, was falling not on his own sword but on the Prime Minister’s. We have also seen some very senior journalists and company executives lose their jobs, and serious questions have been asked about the way in which the police operate. This has called into question the integrity of the police, which in turn strikes at something that really matters to our constituents.
Earlier in the year, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) was a little more sceptical about much of this, when he was questioning me and others about it. However, I think that he has seen, over the past few months, that the evidence from senior officers such as Assistant Commissioner Yates has been risible, and has not met the standards that we expect of a senior police officer in charge of counter-terrorism. I had never meet Andy Hayman until I saw him in the Home Affairs Committee the other day, and, frankly, I was shocked that someone of that calibre—or rather, lack of calibre—was in charge of counter-terrorism in this country. The heart of this matter is therefore probably not the original criminality, which undoubtedly was extensive but was in one sense relatively minor, in terms of the criminal law; far more significant is the cover-up that has taken place. I very much hope that people will not feel from yesterday afternoon that we have got to the bottom of what went on at News International.
Let us be clear about what happened. In the criminal case that was brought against Goodman and Mulcaire, both pleaded guilty. We already know that Mulcaire’s fees were paid by News International, even though he was not a full-time employee of the organisation. I presume that Clive Goodman’s legal fees were also met by News International, and that it encouraged them to plead guilty because it did not want this to go to full trial. It did not want all the evidence to come out into the public domain, because then, what the judge said at the end of the process might have been proved: that this was probably just the tip of a very large iceberg, and it certainly did not want the rest of the iceberg to be seen.
The reason why News International continued to pay Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees, until this afternoon, as I understand it—I thought it was bizarre that James Murdoch still did not know whether it was paying them yesterday; anyway, today he said that it is not paying them any more—was that it wanted to keep control of the case and to make sure that he did not say anything additional that further incriminated other people at the newspaper, or in the wider company.
When the civil cases were brought, there was the next part of the cover-up. News International would have had to provide full disclosure of all the e-mails, all the transactions within the organisation and the whole way in which the scheme was put together whereby Mr Mulcaire engaged in all this activity. I believe that News International was absolutely desperate to make sure that that never came into the public domain, so the most important thing for it to do was to make sure that that never went to trial.
Yesterday afternoon, James Murdoch said that his lawyers had advised him at the time that they had to offer £700,000 to Gordon Taylor—I repeat, £700,000—because they were advised by their lawyers that if the matter went to litigation and the court found against them, they might have to pay £250,000 in damages, and in addition, they would have the costs of having run the case. However, James Murdoch must surely know—unless he is using really bad lawyers—of the part 36 procedure. Under it, when an offer is made—of £200,000, let us say—it is put into court and if the court itself does not offer more, the claimant has to pay the legal costs subsequently incurred, which in this case would have been the greater part of £500,000. I am afraid that Mr James Murdoch yesterday was either extremely poorly briefed on the legal situation, or, frankly, he was still dissembling. I believe that in practice, what they were doing was paying £700,000 to Gordon Taylor—and also to Max Clifford—expressly to maintain the cover-up.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend noticed that James Murdoch used in his evidence a very ambivalent phrase that has a particular meaning in law and another in common parlance:
“Subsequent to our discovery of that information in one of the civil trials”.
That reinforces exactly the point my hon. Friend is making.
Then there were the subsequent civil cases, which could only be brought once The Guardian had run its story suggesting that there were many more victims of phone hacking. Some people started writing in to the Metropolitan police and then suing the police to force them to give them the information, so that they could then take action against News International and get full disclosure from it. It is only as a result of those cases that the cover-up has effectively been smashed apart.
There remains this issue of the material that was gathered and put into a file in 2007, including various e-mails and other pieces of paper, and given to Harbottle & Lewis. Only this year, it was shown to the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, who said that, within three minutes of looking at it, he could see that there was material relating to the payment of police officers that should always have been given to the Metropolitan police. That seems to me a far greater criminal offence than the original criminal offence of phone hacking. That is why my concern is about the cover-up at the heart of this.
Yesterday, Rupert Murdoch was asked whether he was responsible and he said, “No,” but I am afraid that in this country we have to have a much stronger concept of responsibility. It is not just about whether something happens on one’s watch—that is ludicrously broad. If someone has taken all due diligence steps to try to ensure that criminality has not happened, then of course they are not personally responsible. But if someone’s argument is, “Our company is so big that I could not possibly be expected to know whether my journalists were being arrested for criminal activity or whether I was paying out £2 million in hush money,” one must question whether they have a proper corporate governance structure or system in place to make sure that the same thing does not happen again next year or next week—or even that it is not happening now.
This is the difference between responsibility and fault. Rupert Murdoch was responsible for what happened in his corporation, but he may not have been at fault for what happened. However, that responsibility includes the real responsibility for checking that things were done properly. I think I support what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom—this will ruin his career—I think of as a friend. He knows that if the colonel of a regiment had not done everything in his power to make sure that his privates understood the law on how somebody in Abu Ghraib was dealt with, for example, that colonel would be negligent and therefore, in part, responsible for that.
Did the hon. Gentleman share my incredulity about the attempts that were made yesterday when evidence was being given to play down the importance of the News of the World to the Murdoch empire? It may have been a small proportion of the overall empire, but I understand that it was the title with the largest circulation.
Indeed. In the end, if News Corp cannot provide better corporate governance, it needs to be split apart so that investors can have confidence in it and so that other, non-executive, members of the board can have confidence that they are not going to be held responsible in law for the failures of their company.
I agree wholeheartedly with all those who said that we do not want to muzzle the press. A very good point was made about Nick Davies, whose work in The Guardian has been a phenomenal piece of investigative journalism. This country is undoubtedly better because of that quality journalism. I am sure that there are times when such people have to skirt around the edges of legality but that does not mean they should do illegal things, especially given that half the time all they are looking for is minor tittle-tattle that is of no significance to the nation.
Many other issues need to be dealt with, but the final issue I shall raise today is about the 3,800 victims who have to be contacted. That is going to cost the taxpayer a fortune and I believe that News International should be paying the bill.
It is a pleasure to follow the very thoughtful speech of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) about the phone hacking scandal and the work he has done. I know that he took a strong interest in our Select Committee hearing yesterday.
Although he is not in his place, I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Committee, for the great skill and care he showed in chairing yesterday’s very challenging Committee meeting. I thank also the Clerks of the Committee, who have done a huge amount of work in the past couple of weeks in preparation for that meeting.
The Prime Minister mentioned FIFA reform as an example of a story that has been generated by challenges to that organisation that have been made by the media and others outside it. I have taken a huge interest in that story, and I think it is absolutely right external pressure has been put on an organisation that would not otherwise reform itself. It does not have any kind of proper internal governance structure or other means for reporting and holding to account senior people within it. Although we might admire the kind of journalism that points the finger at organisations such as FIFA, media organisations have to learn from some of the internal governance structures and faults within such organisations. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda that it is not acceptable to have a situation in which, when wrongdoing is discovered, proprietors can say that they had no idea what had been going on at one level, and neither did the relevant person in the newsroom. If we believe what we were told by Rebekah Brooks in the Committee yesterday, stories were going into the News of the World without the editor, the news editor or that newspaper’s lawyers having full knowledge of their source. That is clearly not acceptable.
It is also unacceptable, when an organisation’s employees are under police investigation, when some are being sent to prison and when millions of pounds of compensation are being paid out by that organisation, for people at a senior level not to be fully aware of the seriousness of what is going on, and to be unable to act. That is a serious issue because one would hope that when people at the top of a professional organisation became aware of wrongdoing, they would become the drivers for internal change and reform and be the ones who make sure that things happen. The report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs shows that there are great concerns about how the Metropolitan police pursued this case and about the fact that evidence lay unchecked and unresearched for a good amount of time, which might have delayed the investigation for some years.
There is also a big challenge for News Corporation. Whatever comes out of the inquiry that has been set up to look into the work of the media and the police inquiry, News Corporation should reform its corporate governance structures so that it has a mechanism to ensure that this never happens again, and that people at a senior level can take the appropriate action at the appropriate time or be held to account at the highest level for the failure of that action.
My hon. Friend is making a strong point, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) did, about corporate governance needing to be changed. That is absolutely correct. Would my hon. Friend not also say that the culture and the mindset within which executives, even those at the lowest levels of these organisations, are working needs to change? It is not enough not to know what people in an organisation are doing; they need to know what they should and should not be doing.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The point I raised with Rupert Murdoch in the Committee yesterday was about where the boundaries of investigative journalism lie, and whether they are clearly understood. Most people who have worked with news organisations—particularly former employees of News International who have spoken out—would say there was tremendous pressure for scoops and news. Some former News of the World journalists, such as Dave Wooding, who was on “Newsnight” last night, would say that there was that pressure, but that does not mean that they broke the law to go and get stories; they just did their job very hard. There are allegations about other people in the organisation who might have broken the law to satisfy their paymasters, editors and proprietors.
There is clearly a great need for investigative journalism in this country. It gives us a transparent society, and there is a lot more to being a democracy than simply holding elections.
On this point about investigative journalism, will the hon. Gentleman disassociate himself from the disgraceful attempts that we heard earlier to smear Tom Baldwin for his role in a perfectly legitimate investigation that has been defended not only by The Times but by its then news editor, who now serves in the Government as the Secretary of State for Education, and who, following that investigation, described Lord Ashcroft as
“Ambassador for one foreign country and a tax exile in another”.
He also said that the credibility of the Conservative party was not enhanced by its then leader
“acting as the paid lobbyist for your own title-hungry Treasurer”.
All I would say is that I would apply the same rule as the Prime Minister: people are innocent until proven guilty. If there are charges and an investigation, that is one thing, but no charges have been brought against Mr Baldwin, so he is innocent until proven guilty, just as anyone else would be.
There is a great challenge of looking at the boundaries of investigative journalism and at what is right and what is wrong. There must surely be a cultural failure within many news organisations if people believe they are being pushed to do things that might lead to their breaking the law, and that must be addressed. What has been said in the debate so far about the regulation of the press is key and part of that involves internal regulation, the corporate governance of news organisations and how they regulate themselves. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is no longer in his place, talked about his concerns about self-regulation. Although it is different in different industries, it can be made to work.
My experience working in the advertising industry was that a code enforced by the industry on itself would work. One of the big differences between advertising and the press is that there are real financial penalties for advertisers who break the code. If a company has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds producing commercials and advertisements that then get pulled, there is a big financial loss, and a big loss of face for a number of organisations that might have their messages pulled, too, which damages them in the eyes of consumers.
I declare an interest as the Member of Parliament representing News International in Wapping. Although we all support the principle of “innocent until proven guilty”, some victims of the hacking scandal—employees of News International—have lost their jobs; they are victims who will suffer, regardless of their guilt or otherwise.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is an important point. Going back to what I said about the importance of good structures of corporate governance there are victims within organisations that fail the test of corporate governance—innocent people who have done their jobs well lose out as a result of the mistakes of others. That is why it is so important that those structures should be there. Whatever lessons have been drawn from the scandal so far, that surely must be one lesson that the Murdochs have to learn from it; that is of the greatest importance.
Models of self-regulation can work, but clearly there is a need for total reform of the regulation of the press. The principle of a free press is, of course, of the highest importance. That must continue, but that does not mean that journalists can operate outside the law.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who makes an important point. The media and the news, in particular, work across multiple platforms; people get their news not just from newspapers, but from television and the internet, so there is a case for that, although that is quite a big and broad challenge. Certainly, among the regulators there should be people who have experience of multiple media platforms, and an understanding of what is acceptable. That is something to consider.
In the short time left to me, I want to raise a second point. We all agree that there is a good, strong, and important case for free media and a free press, but there is also a strong role for the regulators with regard to mergers involving media organisations. There was discussion earlier about whether politicians should be taken out of the process. It would be wrong for politicians to exercise independent judgment outside of legitimate advice about what companies are fit and proper, and what companies should, or should not, be merged. That should be based on a good high degree of technical and professional knowledge.
The right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) spoke, in answer to an intervention, about the application of a “fit and proper person” test. We on the Select Committee had a briefing about that from Ofcom, in whose eyes it is a real test. It has applied it in the past, and has removed broadcast licences from digital broadcasters in the past. I am sure that if Ofcom is monitoring this debate, it would be happy to send information about that to any hon. Members who have an interest in the issue.
We have an obligation to ensure that there is a free and open marketplace for media. The Leader of the Opposition raised his concern about the dominance of Sky in the pay TV market, but we have to look at that market as a whole, and not just one area of it. Yes, Sky is dominant in pay TV; ITV is also dominant when it comes to traditional advertising revenue generated from television. Most people probably get their news and content from the BBC. In the digital media age, all those will be accessible from one platform. When YouView launches next year, there will be more choice more easily available to consumers than ever before.
Although media companies are very different, it is right that we consider them as part of the same entity. We also have to consider that in the internet age, people will increasingly get their news from powerful online organisations such as Google, and social networking sites such as Facebook, which are out of the scope of the regulation of the UK media. We have to consider how media organisations in this country can compete with added pressure from those platforms, so we have to look at the totality of the media market.
We should recognise that newspapers are an enormously important part of our national life; many millions of people still enjoy buying and reading physical newspapers every week, as well as accessing them online, but newspapers, as a business model, struggle. They often succeed better when they are part of integrated media companies with the financial muscle to support them. To refer to remarks made earlier, that is why it is important that there should be oversight of the whole market, and that we consider the competitiveness and regulation of the whole market, and see it as a single entity producing news and taking it to people. When it is well run, healthy and respectable, it is of the greatest importance to a free society and a great democracy.
I declare to the House that I was in Oxford university Labour club with Rupert Murdoch, that when I was chairman of the club he was unseated as secretary for breaking the campaigning rules, but that our relationship was sufficiently repaired that, by the time I worked for Harold Wilson at No. 10 Downing street and was his host at lunch, he had by then purchased the News of the World and The Sun, and both of those supported the Labour party in the 1970 election—for all the good that did!
The title of the debate demonstrates the Government’s shifty efforts to evade any sort of accountability for the events that have disgusted the nation over recent weeks. It is of course undeniable that there has been corrupt, possibly criminal, behaviour by senior figures at New Scotland Yard, and it is essential that these wrongdoings, both institutionally and by individuals, should be dealt with in the sternest way, particularly for the sake of the thousands of police officers doing a challenging job on behalf of the community.
It is undeniable too that there has been criminality in the News of the World, and that that criminality should be investigated and, where appropriate, prosecuted. Senior figures in News International and News Corp have, however belatedly, expressed their contrition and, convincingly or otherwise, claimed ignorance of the worst excesses that have been revealed. I have to say that that reveals their inadequacy in holding the jobs that they did. When I worked at the Daily Mirror, which I did for nine years, and Hugh Cudlipp, that great journalist, was editorial director, he would have known what was going on—except that he would have stopped it going on before it happened. The standards have deteriorated in newspaper proprietorship.
It is difficult to reconcile what Rebekah Brooks told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday about payments to the police with what she told the Committee under my chairmanship on 11 March 2003:
“We have paid the police for information in the past.”
That was pretty categorical. She argued yesterday that it was not inappropriate for her to have the Prime Minister as a friend, and that is acceptable. On the other hand, it was entirely inappropriate for the Prime Minister to have Rebekah Brooks as a friend. The list of his meetings with journalists, dragged out of him in recent days, demonstrates an extraordinary cosiness with executives of News International newspapers, with nearly twice as many meetings with them as with all other media groups combined, including three stays at Chequers for Rebekah Brooks.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished Member of the House, for giving way to me. If he is saying that it was wrong for the Prime Minister to have that close a relationship with Rebekah Brooks, by the same token would he say that it was wrong for the last Prime Minister to have had such a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch, to the extent that their children played together?
He did not have that kind of relationship with Murdoch. He did pursue Murdoch too much, I grant the hon. Gentleman that, but he did not have that kind of close personal relationship that the present Prime Minister has had with Rebekah Brooks. No Prime Minister, almost certainly ever, has had such disproportionate contacts with one newspaper group and in such a short time. Heath, Thatcher and Major never had such chummy relationships with the media. Stanley Baldwin, referring in the 1930s to press excesses, spoke—the words were supplied to him by Rudyard Kipling—of
“Power without responsibility—the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”
This Prime Minister has proved both incorrigible and suspect in his relationships with News International executives. The most notorious, of course, was his hiring of Andy Coulson as his head of communications. He played round that this afternoon when he answered questions, but the fact is that he should have been aware before appointing Coulson of Coulson’s 2003 admission to the Select Committee of payments to the police, followed by his claim that such payments to the police were within the law—which is impossible, since bribing the police is a criminal offence. To take on someone who has confessed to criminal activity and then lied about it is utterly culpable, especially since numerous warnings were sent to the Prime Minister not to take him on. I repeat what was said earlier: Rebekah Brooks made it very clear that Coulson was appointed by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Odd things have gone on under the Prime Minister’s leadership of the Conservative party. He was imprecise and evasive when asked about the employment of Coulson’s former deputy Neil Wallis, who has been arrested by the police as part of the hacking investigation, and who did work for the Tories in the run-up to the general election. The warnings to the Prime Minister about Coulson seem not to have been passed on by Ed Llewellyn, the Prime Minister’s chief of staff. That was a grave dereliction of duty. No previous Prime Minister would have accepted such conduct, but as we know, Wallis’s conduct was even more bizarre.
When John Yates, then assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, in advance of an arranged meeting with the Prime Minister, offered to brief him on phone hacking, Llewellyn rejected it, saying:
“We will want to be able to be entirely clear, for your sake and ours, that we have not been in contact with you about this subject.”
People go on about the inappropriateness of briefing the Prime Minister about operational police matters, but the offer was not to brief him about operational police matters, and if anyone tells me that the police do not brief the Prime Minister about operational matters relating to action against terrorism, which Yates was also in charge of, I say, “Pull the other one.”
Llewellyn was seeking to claim deniability on the issue, but no Prime Minister ought to need to claim deniability on any subject. The Prime Minister’s attitude to this entire imbroglio has been unacceptable. He has made statements about it outside the House and then had to be dragged to the House. This debate is the latest example. He held meetings with Rebekah Brooks right in the middle of the process of Government consideration of the News International bid for BSkyB, which was until recently regarded as a wave-through, and it would have been waved through if this scandal had not broken.
Today the Prime Minister was questioned again and again, including by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), about whether he had discussed the BSkyB takeover with Rebekah Brooks or anyone else from News International. He did not answer. He dodged the question. It is perfectly clear from his failure to respond that he discussed the BSkyB bid with News International, and if he wants to intervene now to deny it in categorical terms, I shall be delighted to give way. But he has not, and he will not.
The Government have behaved to Parliament and the country as no Government have behaved since the Profumo scandal. Their priority has been appeasing one brand of press baron. That has to come to an end; the Government cannot get out of it.
I have great respect for the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), but I regret his speech today. It was in marked contrast to the tone throughout the debate, which was rightly set by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in their opening remarks. They made it clear that both major parties have made huge mistakes in their dealings with the media over the past 20 years. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton seemed to want to suggest that it was entirely one-sided, but I could refer to a long list, from Tony Blair’s flight to see Rupert Murdoch on Hayman Island in 1995 to Sarah Brown planning a party for Rebekah Wade. Surely the right hon. Gentleman accepts that today we have heard both major political parties saying they have made mistakes and that they are willing to work together to sort out the mess.
I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman that there are wonderful police officers—as there are in my constituency—and outstanding journalists, who have played an important part in this episode. I said to the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that if Tony Blair had misbehaved, and that includes the visit to Australia, I disapproved. However, the current Government have had a greater cosiness with one newspaper empire than any other Government I have known.
I regret allowing the right hon. Gentleman to intervene because, yet again, he is trying to engage in the party political knockabout for which the public will not forgive us. They want us to get on and sort out the mess. They want the police inquiry to get under way and be done properly this time around. They want the judge-led inquiry that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set up to do its work as quickly as possible.
Yesterday we saw the excellent work of both Select Committees in their investigations. Sadly, we learned relatively little from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. We got the welcome, but well-rehearsed contrition. We found that The Sun cannot tell the difference between a custard pie and a paper plate full of foam. We discovered that, bizarrely, Glenn Mulcaire’s legal fees continued to be paid. Thank goodness it has been announced that, as of today, those fees are no longer being paid. Above all, we discovered that there should be genuine concern about the corporate governance of News Corporation. We need to address that concern and its implications for us.
The Prime Minister rightly said that we must consider competition legislation—we certainly must. He also rightly said that we must consider plurality. I say to my right hon. Friend that we must consider not only when the test is applied—the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has already committed the Government to doing that—but what the plurality rules cover. I think that all hon. Members recognise that we currently base the definition on news and current affairs. Yet surely all hon. Members also acknowledge that a powerful drama can transform how we view our world and each other, and that a powerful comedy can have the same effect. When we consider plurality, we need to widen the remit of what is covered so that it is not confined to news and current affairs.
The right hon. Gentleman may have been coming to the point that I am about to make, in which case, I apologise, but does he also agree that strong media companies have the budgets to invest in new creative content and talent, which are important to the entire industry?
My hon. Friend is right, but the other point that I want to make is that we need to reconsider the fit and proper persons test. If we have real concerns about corporate governance, we should be able to test whether a corporation—an owning organisation—is fit and proper to own, for example, BSkyB or parts of it. I think that we should consider whether News Corporation is fit and proper to own not only more shares in BSkyB, but its existing 39% of shares.
I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is here because I have some concerns about one aspect of his announcement today. He announced the possibility—depending on certain circumstances—of extending the judge-led inquiry’s remit to cover other forms of broadcasting and social media. Before the debate, my concern about that was relatively simple. The issues are so complicated that extending the remit would lengthen the time of the inquiry for such a long period that we would not get on and tackle matters. We should consider some of the concerns that people have raised separately, as part of developing the communications Bill in the next 18 months or so.
What really worried me today, however, was the fact that it became increasingly clear from some of the comments made by colleagues on the coalition side of the House that there was another motive, potentially, for what was to be added to the remit. Some of the remarks attacking the BBC and its independence and its high-quality work make me wonder whether some people on the coalition Benches are seeking to—wrongly, in my view—clip the wings of the BBC. I hope that is not the case.
Let me briefly mention some comments that have been made about the need for what the Prime Minister called independent regulation. The whole House would accept that the Press Complaints Commission has been a failure. Many examples of its failure have been cited. The fact that the Richard Desmond newspapers—the Express and the Star—can simply walk away of their own volition is a pretty good reason for saying that it has failed. The fact that it cannot conduct investigations is another, as is the fact that it cannot fine.
Today we have heard some very helpful lists of ideas of how we can move forward. I particularly welcome the speeches by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. It is crucial that the new, independent body that replaces the PCC has the ability to carry out investigations, and that it has a much more powerful system of redress, including requiring the payment of fines, but I would warn the House about the way in which “independence” can be interpreted by some people.
I recently looked back at the MacTaggart lecture given by James Murdoch, who only yesterday appeared before the Select Committee to give evidence. The House might be interested to hear a small extract from what he said in that lecture:
“Yes, the free press is fairly near the knuckle on occasion—it is noisy, disrespectful, raucous and quite capable of affronting people—it is frequently the despair of judges and it gets up the noses of politicians on a regular basis. But it is driven by the daily demand and choices of millions of people. It has had the profits to enable it to be fearless and independent.”
He goes on:
“The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.”
I fundamentally disagree with him, and I would urge people who are looking at how we progress, for example, our creative industries, not to believe that the removal of all regulation will enable the right sort of growth—the growth that we want. It is crucial that we have, for all parts of the creative industries, including and in particular the press, appropriate regulations. That is why the Prime Minister is absolutely right to talk about regulation—yes, by an independent body, but that regulation is needed.
We have spent a lot of time discussing the way forward in terms of regulations and new structures, but it is crucial to remember that we are at present gravely concerned about the illegal activity that has taken place, and that is why it is crucial that everyone be required to contribute fully and provide full evidence to the investigation. Let us hope it is a better investigation than the one by the police last time around.
I will try to be as brief as possible. The debate is very welcome; it is good for the public to see that we are taking these issues seriously. In the past few weeks we have seen perhaps an unprecedented interest from members of the public, who have suddenly realised, perhaps because of the Milly Dowler situation, exactly what has been going on in some sections of the media.
I want to add a couple of remarks on the family of Milly Dowler. When a scandal becomes associated with the victim of a crime, it is extremely difficult for them to move on and live their lives. I hope that when all these matters are dealt with, that family will recognise that we have tried to do the best thing in their interest and in the interests of other victims of crime, so that they are allowed to move on.
As hon. Members may be aware, I was not able to participate in the evidence given to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday, but I watched it carefully. I was astonished to hear some of the evidence from both Rebekah Brooks and the Murdochs. By any stretch of the imagination, in the capitalist world, that corporation is a successful one in terms of profit and turnover, but those people simply did not know who had authorised the spending of money at various points. That beggared belief. It also beggars belief that within that system, they could not identify who had authorised illegal payments to the police. It seems that there was no oversight or governance in relation to those payments.
At any time, an intrusion into people’s privacy is a delicate matter. There will be times, in the interests of national security or of tackling serious and organised crime, when intrusions will be made. Hon. Members will know that when those serious actions are taken, a range of measures must be in place. They are right and proper, because responsibilities go with such intrusion. In the interests of allowing the press to conduct investigations and so on, the press must take its responsibility seriously. However, I cannot conceive of a situation in which any reasonable person would say that it is proper for the press to undertake some of the so-called investigations that have been undertaken, or that it is proper for the press to make illegal payments to do so. It worries me when we slip into the shorthand and talk of “hacking” or “blagging”, because “hacking” is accessing people’s private information illegally, sometimes by paying money. The word “hacking” should not slip off the tongue without further consideration. Blagging, of course, is trying to obtain people’s private information—usually financial information such as bank account details—illegally by assuming someone else’s identity.
I mentioned that I found it difficult to understand why nobody in News International seemed to know who had done what. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who asked this question: if News International and News Corp have got so big that nobody knows what is happening, how could they possibly countenance taking on another company and looking after it with any proper governance?
I welcome the inquiries that have been set up and the Prime Minister’s assurance today that the inquiry will cover Scotland. Of course, this is not simply about one part of the UK, and neither is it just about News International, so I welcome the fact that the inquiry will extend to other police forces and that it will look at all newspapers and media. However, I am a bit of a pedant for the detail. The Prime Minister said that “relevant forces” would be included in the police inquiry. In his winding-up speech, will the Minister confirm whether all police forces are relevant in that context?
I asked a question earlier in relation to the Scottish Government, who I am sure will want absolutely to co-operate with the inquiries. I hope that they immediately publish information about their contacts with News International.
I would never seek to put words into the mouth of the normally loquacious Mr Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland—I am sure he can speak well for himself—but it is important that that information is put into the public domain and that it forms part of the inquiry.
I conclude by making a couple of points about the Press Complaints Commission and whatever will replace it. A member of the public—not a politician, a lawyer or someone involved in this from day to day—who finds themselves on the wrong end of a newspaper report will find it extremely difficult to take that matter up. Whatever we do, we must ensure that the body is accessible to the public.
It will, of course, take time for the inquiries that are under way to report to the House. However, it is important that that does not send the signal that nothing should change in the meantime. I therefore call on all police forces to go through their records to ensure that there has been no illegality regarding the receipt of payments. I also call on newspaper editors and owners to do exactly the same. If they find that illegal payments have been made, they should cease that practice forthwith. If any of their reporters or staff have been involved in so-called blagging, they should make it clear publicly that that illegal operation will cease. Politicians have a role in this, but so do the press and the police. It is up to us all to take our responsibilities seriously so that we give back to the public the confidence that they deserve.
Sadly, the phrase “Don’t believe everything you read in the press” now seems to be true. In addition to dealing with criminality, I hope that this process will ensure that we can believe everything that we read in the press, just as we can believe the phrase “You can always trust a policeman”.
A great cross-party approach has led to the inquiry, so I commend the Leader of the Opposition for working with our Prime Minister and the other party leaders. However, I wish that Labour Members had acted when they were in government, as I am sure they agree.
I associate myself with the apology that my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) made to Mr Rupert Murdoch yesterday, and I give Mr Murdoch some credit for staying on to answer Committee members’ questions. My hon. Friend also referred to outstanding points for the inquiry. As the Committee has not yet concluded its report, I do not intend to make specific comments about what was said yesterday, but I encourage hon. Members to read the transcript and to note that we will set out written follow-up questions.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) suggested that at least two people had lied to Parliament in the past 24 hours. I assume he was referring to Sir Paul Stephenson’s comments about his resignation, and perhaps to Mrs Brooks and the Murdochs.
I do not know to whom the hon. Member for Rhondda was referring.
We have to be careful when we say that people have lied to Parliament. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we have not got to the bottom of the matter—as the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Cathy Jamieson) said, some of the testimony was frustrating—and to do so we need to call further witnesses to our inquiry. However, I now know that the Committee’s intention is that the police and the judicial inquiry see further witnesses rather than us.
I welcome a lot of the suggestions that have been made about equal prominence for apologies and about fining and compensation powers. I asked Mr Murdoch yesterday whether, given his experience in the media spotlight, he would think again about his newspapers’ headlines and some of the targets of their investigative journalism. I appreciate that a headline such as “Up Yours Delors” is quite entertaining and unlikely to cause damage, but The Sun once published the headline “Bonkers Bruno Locked Up”. At that time, Mrs Brooks learned a lesson straight away because the following day she published a front-page editorial from the charity SANE, as well as making appropriate restoration. I see that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) is not in the Chamber, but I should point out that The Sun has made no such restoration of reputation for the Hillsborough 96, which I think would be welcomed by the people of Liverpool.
Newspapers and the Press Complaints Commission itself do not need to wait for the creation of a new regulator because they could change the code of conduct by bringing in several ideas that have been suggested. Although, the PCC’s credibility has sadly, been somewhat destroyed, that does not mean that it should be sulking, as I perceive that some of its comments suggest is the case, although I am sure that that is not its intention. People should look in the mirror before they write those headlines and decide what they are going to put out there. As I said, some of the treatment that editors, both past and present, have recently received will, I hope, make them think again.
Both in the testimony that we heard yesterday and in the Home Office report, there was extremely heavy reliance on lawyers’ advice, for example, on the sum for which people should settle. The Home Office report considered the question of whether former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Clarke relied on lawyers’ advice about undertaking more investigation if News International was not co-operating, and whether he was told that the police could not really exercise certain powers because it would be seen as fishing. From my own experience of corporate life, lawyers always take the lowest-risk approach, and one has to decide whether one wants to take that advice. Indeed, the House decided earlier this year that it was not happy with advice about prisoners’ votes. People should not necessarily hide behind lawyers’ advice. They should listen to it, but they should be prepared to make different decisions.
I was about to conclude, so, in deference to other hon. Members who wish to make a speech, I shall not give way.
I applaud the cross-party approach that some hon. Members have taken, but I deplore the tribalism demonstrated by others. I am afraid, however, that I might introduce a little bit myself. It was Mr Yates who led the investigation into cash for honours in which an official serving the then Prime Minister was arrested. I am not aware that people were calling on the then Prime Minister to apologise—I think that there was surprise—and, as has been said by the Prime Minister and by other Members, we should wait until people are charged and, indeed, found guilty before we condemn the decisions of those involved in employing them. On that matter, I commend the motion, and particularly the desire of everyone to make sure that we have a cleaned-up press and a police force whom we are confident can lead such investigations.
A number of Members have said that we all bear some responsibility for our relations with the press, which are sometimes uneasy. That is also true of our relations with the police. At times, Members are anxious about criticising the police lest they appear to be expressing a lack of support. At other times, we are fulsome in our praise when there is a need for criticism.
I think of myself as someone who supports the police, but there are lessons to be learned from what happened at the Met in this unhappy episode. There are serious questions about managerial control at the Met, and that will be a consideration when the next commissioner is appointed. I was struck by the way in which Lord Blair, the former commissioner, wanted immediately to distance himself from the original inquiry, and did not want to have anything to do with it. I accept that he did not have operational control, but he was the guy in charge. I was struck by the way in which Andy Hayman seemed to be in charge of the inquiry, but not remotely in control of what was happening. John Yates did not seem to be at all clear about what Sir Paul Stephenson had asked him to do when he conducted an eight-hour mini-review. Mr Fedorcio seemed to run the public affairs directorate as an odd-job man might recruit customers—it was almost unbelievable.
We need better managerial control at the Met. It is astonishing that no one thought to ask a question about the fact that 10 of the 45 employees in the public affairs directorate were ex-News International. Anywhere else, that would be a question worth asking. The way in which Mr Wallis was awarded a contract worth £1,000 a day is open to question, too. The fact that in the midst of investigations senior officers could have dinners with people who might be directly relevant to their inquiries seems astonishing.
I do not see that the Mayor has played a particularly useful role, with his reference to codswallop and his attempt to roll back. I mention this because the Mayor is the model for police commissioners that the Home Secretary wants to impose on the rest of the country, and the Mayor seems to have played no useful part in terms of accountability during this process. What looks like one of the least accountable forces in the country is set to become the model for the rest of the country. There is an argument that, even at this late stage, the Government should think again about the problem.
That is not really the point. The point that I am making is that in the face of this enormous scandal, the man who was supposed to make the police more accountable did nothing about it.
If Lord Macdonald is right about what he saw in the file, sadly some officers will have to go to jail to restore public confidence. There is no way in which that can be swept under the carpet now.
I echo the points made by the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), and by my colleague on the Committee, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), about victims. At the core of the problem is the way people were treated. Unless additional resources are devoted to identifying the victims and something is done about that, the stench associated with these events will never go away. While there is doubt about whether all the people who have been mistreated have been accounted for, the problem will not go away. There will be no closure until we identify all the victims and they are properly and fairly treated. I urge the Government to think about that aspect.
In criticising the police, we should not forget the pressures they were under at the time, with the incredible terrorist threat that was sweeping the country. We should not underestimate the pressures that ordinary rank and file officers feel they are under because of the cuts and the relentless pace of change that the Government are imposing on them. We need to recognise that wrongdoers must be punished and failure in all its forms in the police must be addressed, but ordinary officers need a break from the relentless attack on honourable policing traditions, which is the problem now afflicting police forces throughout the country.
In the light of what we have experienced in this horrible affair, there is a chance to pause and think again about some of the things that are happening to other forces at this time. It would be a tragedy if we did not learn anything from the experience and went on to create conditions in other forces that mean that the same problems are repeated elsewhere at some point in the future.
I welcome the recall of Parliament. I am only sorry that we are not being recalled to discuss the problems of the eurozone, the slowdown in the world economy in the face of higher energy prices, and the famine in east Africa. We may well have to be recalled in August to discuss the first of these issues.
We are here today to discuss, among other things, the relationships between politicians and the media. It behoves us all, therefore, to declare any connections with the media in general and News International in particular. I was going to say that I had none, but my wife reminded me that in 1997 The Times supported my bid for the leadership of the Conservative party. In view of the fact that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) discovered and the Leader of the Opposition will discover, becoming Leader of the Opposition after 12 years in power is a poisoned chalice, it might be thought that endorsing me was more a malicious act than a reason for me to feel any obligation. Anyway, The Times subsequently precipitated my departure from the Front Bench by publishing no fewer than 16 hostile articles critical of my Butler memorial lecture—the first time it had ever received such attention in The Times. I think therefore that my slate is clean as far as Murdoch is concerned, which is just as well because I might say some things that are mildly favourable to News International.
There has been great outrage in this country over the hacking scandal and Milly Dowler, but I am worried that it is being used by some people who want to shackle the freedom of the press, which would put not only our freedom in danger but a major industry and employer in this country at risk. Politicians tend to suffer from the delusion that the press and the media have far more power than they do—the power to swing votes. In fact, readers do not take instructions from editors. When The Sun had been backing the Tories for a decade and claimed, “It’s the Sun wot won it”, a survey found that a majority of readers of The Sun thought that it was a Labour-supporting newspaper. Readers who are interested in politics choose their newspaper because it has congenial political views; the rest are largely uninfluenced by an editor’s views. Successful editors follow their readers, not vice versa.
None the less, we in the House tend to be subject to this delusion, and none more so than those on the left of politics. The reason is that the left needs an explanation for why the majority of ordinary people do not share its views on the EU, crime, family, welfare and taxes. Those on the left conclude, as they have to, that people must have been indoctrinated, and clearly the indoctrinator-in-chief is Rupert Murdoch and News International. I have looked through the literally hundreds of e-mails that I have received on this issue. Only one mentioned Milly Dowler; one other expressed outrage about hacking. All the others were about Rupert Murdoch, News International and even Fox News, which does not even operate over here, and about its size, its share of the market, its views and its foreign ownership. These are legitimate concerns, but they are partisan.
Like the right hon. Gentleman, I have received numerous representations this year on the BSkyB takeover. As a councillor, I was always advised that in matters that might involve a conflict of interest, perception was everything. Does he agree that it would have been better had the Government from the outset—at the end of last year—referred the bid to the Competition Commission, and not got involved with undertakings from an organisation that had already proven itself to be untrustworthy on undertakings? That would have improved the public’s perception of the Government.
I do not believe that perception is all; substance is the most important thing, along with following the law, which is what I believe the Government did.
Labour Members have expressed no concern today about the media share held by the BBC, about the behaviour of The Mirror, which was often implicated by Nick Davies in his investigation, or about the ownership of the Standard or The Independent. I think that we need to recognise that the press does not have the power that people suppose. It does not swing votes—perhaps a few—and it does not determine popular views but follows them. The one important power that the press has is the power to tell the truth. All credit should go to Nick Davies of The Guardian for his investigations, both on this particular issue and more widely. Sadly, his searing critique of the media, “Flat Earth News”, received remarkably little coverage from his colleagues in the media and appallingly little interest from the political class in the House. At its launch in this House, I was one of only two Members of the House of Commons who attended to hear his views. But we should listen, because he says that there is wrongdoing in many organs of the press other than News International.
Having listened, we should be extremely wary of believing that the solution is to burden the media with more regulation and with statutory controls. Hacking is already illegal—we do not have to pass laws to make it illegal. However, such things as intrusion on personal grief, though repugnant, are not justiciable. Bias and distortion are regrettable, but they are not really justiciable unless we are to set up censorship of the press. We should be very wary of going down that road, and we should not get carried away or allow partisan concern about the views expressed by one player in the media to be used in the political process to damage that player or the freedom of the press.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the House, but I have just learned that the BBC journalist, Mr Paul Lambert, who reported yesterday on the egregious breach of security during the Culture, Media and Sport Committee sitting, has had his parliamentary press pass removed by the House authorities. I hope the House will agree that it is appropriate that we support the freedom of the press, particularly when the press are reporting on serious failures of security in this House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. There are clearly a number of concerns about who gets press passes. I wonder whether, when the matter that the hon. Member for Corby (Louise Mensch) has raised is looked into, some consideration might be given to publishing who has press passes. At the moment, we do not know that.
Again, I am sure that will be looked into. I am not absolutely sure whether the names of those who have press passes are not already in the public domain in the directory that is made available to the House, but I will look into the matter myself to see what the truth is.
Today’s debate is entitled “Public confidence in the media and police”, but whatever the shortcomings of that title, everyone who is in the Chamber can agree that both of those have been shaken to the core by recent events.
The evidence offered by senior police officers yesterday and by senior Met officials could be assessed either as a demonstration of unprofessional and naive behaviour or as a wilful neglect of the integrity that we normally associate with those who have been given the privilege of holding high public office. Whichever conclusion we draw, it ain’t good. In particular, I draw attention to the evidence of Dick Fedorcio, which was unintelligible to me. That is more worrying when we consider that he is the man responsible for the Met’s message. Although John Yates has carried out distinguished work during his career—of that there is no doubt—I fear that he will be remembered for a Mr Magoo-style botched and bungled phone hacking investigation.
Like many others, I watched with great interest the theatre of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing yesterday. At times, Rupert Murdoch cut a figure of an amalgam of all the caricatures that we have seen of him over the years, but it was the young pretender, James Murdoch, who revealed the most through half-answered questions. At times Mr James Murdoch looked on in terror at Mr Rupert Murdoch, wondering what he was going to say next. However, it was James Murdoch’s revelation about Mr Glenn Mulcaire’s legal costs being paid that brought Rebekah Brooks’s prophetic words into sharp focus. Members will remember that she said to News of the World staff that
“in a year’s time every single one of you in this room might come up and say, ‘OK, well I see what you saw now’.”
James Murdoch’s disclosure that Mulcaire’s legal fees were paid will, I believe, unlock Rebekah Brooks’s prediction. We must wait and see whether that is the case, but people do not pay for a criminal’s legal defence if they have nothing to hide.
My main purpose in contributing to today’s debate is to call on the Government to extend their investigations to every part of the media, not just the print media. Yes, there is no doubt that the behaviour of News International was indefensible and beyond the pale, but anyone who believes that it stops there displays Olympian detachment from reality. The behaviour of the printed news media in this country has, with few exceptions, been appalling at various times, and it is not until we enter the political arena that we see the worst of it. That behaviour has been sanctioned by a Press Complaints Commission that is paid for by the newspapers. I am reminded of the words of Luke 4:23, “Physician, heal thyself.” Self-regulation has to end. Mr Deputy Speaker, you were in the Chair on the evening of my Adjournment debate on 27 April, when I brought the House’s attention to the deficiencies in the self-regulation of the press. Like Alice Cooper, I consider myself to be ahead of my time, because shortly thereafter, press self-regulation became a headline issue.
It is my view, however, that the review of the regulation of the media must be extended to include the broadcast and electronic media as well. When debates on statutory control and self-regulation took place in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the printed news media were the public’s primary source of information. Now, however, it is Sky News, the BBC News channel and the electronic media. The behaviour of those media must also be investigated, and the public must be afforded the opportunity to contribute to that investigation. I personally would be more than happy to contribute evidence on the behaviour of BBC Scotland, an organisation that I believe has broken its editorial code at our expense. It is currently under investigation following three separate complaints that I have made to Ofcom.
Debates about regulation have raged for decades. Royal commissions have come and gone, general councils have been set up and failed, and, as I pointed out on 27 April, self-regulation has also failed. I am delighted to see that all the main players now agree with me on that. I value freedom of the press and the rule of law, and, following this tide of terrible events, we now have a once-in-many-generations opportunity to set things right. I put it to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport that we should not fetter those who have been given the challenge of finding solutions to these problems.
The Home Affairs Committee commenced its report on a cross-party basis 10 months ago. That report shows that the relations between the police and the media, particularly News International, are too close. Indeed, there were so many lunches and dinners that I am surprised that senior police officers had time for anything else. Despite that, I do not incline to the view that there is high-level corruption or conspiracy at the top of the police. Given the evidence that I have seen, as far as the police are concerned, I think that this is more about cock-up and perhaps incompetence in some places, although Lord Leveson might find otherwise. I take that view because of the evidence that our Committee saw on the role of the Crown Prosecution Service and the way in which it clearly let down the police.
I asked John Yates yesterday whether he thought that blame had been fairly ascribed between the police and the CPS, and he said that he most certainly did not. He felt that he had been bumping his head against the proverbial brick wall in trying to get people to understand the role of the CPS. It might be more interesting for the media to look at the relationship between the media and the police, but it is the relationship between the police and the CPS that gets us to the heart of this matter.
We must ask why those 11,000 pages of Mulcaire’s documents were not looked at and why the police did not do anything about them, but we must also ask why the CPS did nothing. Even yesterday, Kier Starmer was not quite clear as to whether the CPS had seen them all; he said that it had seen only the ones up to August 2006. We have now heard from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), however, that, on 8 August, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Attorney-General were notified of the existence of what was described as a
“vast array of offending behaviour”
and the material to back that up. What happened? They do not seem to have done anything about it.
The current DPP looked at this issue in July 2009. He was new to the job. He went through all the materials and tried to find out what happened at the time. He concluded that nothing happened because of the law:
“To prove the criminal offence of interception the prosecution must prove that the actual message was intercepted prior to it being accessed by the intended recipient.”
It was on that basis that the CPS constrained the police investigation.
Whether the noble Lords Goldsmith and Macdonald were asleep on the bridge, just gave incompetent legal advice, or in some way prevented this police investigation are very serious questions. I am delighted that the Prime Minister has revised the terms of reference of his Lord Leveson inquiry, and that it will look at the role of the prosecuting authorities and why the CPS gave this, in my view, extraordinary and clearly wrong advice that it had to be proved that the message was intercepted before it was listened to.
Section 2(7) of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 is clear on this issue. Parliament made our intentions clear. We said that a communication remains in transmission while a system is
“storing it in a manner that enables the intended recipient to collect it or otherwise have access to it.”
So there is no basis for the CPS saying that the police had to prove that the message was intercepted before it was listened to. However, it seems that that is what stopped the investigation back in 2006. The noble Lords Macdonald and Goldsmith have to answer for themselves on that: why did they give that advice, which is clearly wrong in the light of section 2(7)?
Keir Starmer of the CPS is acting loyally, and as far as I can see acted properly in trying to look into this matter in July 2009. He has now recanted from the evidence that I just quoted, which he gave to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. He is saying at best, “Well, perhaps it is uncertain. Perhaps there could be a prosecution.” However, even that would have hugely constrained the police, because it made matters much more difficult for them. The advice of the CPS was much clearer at the time: it said that prosecution was not possible on that basis.
That is the problem we are left with, and I want to know why the CPS did that. The CPS needs to be more accountable, and I look forward to seeing stage 2 of these elected commissioners—and not just for the police. As with police, the royal commission in 1981 said that the CPS should be put under elected control and oversight.
This is clearly an extremely important debate for the future and quality of our democracy and the nature of our country. Across the House, Members are in agreement that we want a free press, but at the moment we are not quite agreed on what we mean by freedom of the press. A free press is obviously part of the rights we have under the European convention on human rights to free speech and free expression, but I remind Members that the exercise of this freedom also carries duties and responsibilities. The convention says that the exercise of these freedoms is “subject to” limitations
“in the interests of national security…public safety…the prevention of…crime”—
“the protection of health or morals”
and so on. So, this freedom of expression is not a freedom from all constraints or legalities, and nor is it a freedom to chase stories using any technique possible. Significantly, it is also limited by article 8 of the European convention, on the right to privacy. As we move forward and look at the appropriate regulation, we need to have in mind article 8 as well as article 10.
It really is not reasonable for people to pretend that uncovering the sex lives of footballers is equivalent to the fight for freedom of expression we have seen in north Africa and the middle east in recent months. It is also disingenuous for so-called celebrity columnists to pretend they are some latter-day combination of Bob Woodward and Dean Swift. I do not agree with Lord Kinnock about the rules on balance for the broadcast media being taken across into those for the press, but I do think that the Leader of the Opposition was absolutely right that the problems we have faced over a long period of time have been because of a very significant concentration of power, which led to a web of corruption.
It is not acceptable that a quarter of the Met press office had formerly worked for News International. It is a matter of concern that Andy Hayman went to work for News International from the police, that the former DPP went to work at News International and that News International has also employed, as a so-called independent adjudicator, a former High Court judge, Sir Charles Gray. I am not suggesting that all those cases involve impropriety, but we must know what the rules are. I hope when the Secretary of State winds up he will be able to tell us the truth about what happened in the autumn of 2009, when, it is widely rumoured, the broadcasting policy that he wanted to publish was held up because the Chancellor of the Exchequer had to clear it with James Murdoch.
What I really want to remind hon. Members is that those who have suffered most as a result of these abuses are ordinary people. What has been uncovered very recently has been extremely shocking, and there is a long history of ordinary people being abused and not having proper recourse because they did not have the money to employ lawyers and because the PCC is such a toothless tiger.
Let me tell hon. Members a couple of stories about that.A boy in my constituency, who was obviously badly behaved, was described in one of the tabloids as “terrorising” the town, which was a total exaggeration and is not a way in which any of us would allow our children to be described. In another case, a woman I met who was a victim of domestic violence was also denigrated—in The Sun in this instance—because her neighbours had been blagged. There was complete deceit about the nature of the inquiry and how the story would be written up. We are talking about extremely vulnerable people and we must take them into account in any new regulations that are set up.
First, I add my voice to the unanimous view of the House that the phone hacking scandal is a total and utter disgrace and that those who are found to have broken the law should face the consequences. Hacking, blagging and any similar illegal activities are absolutely despicable and we all feel for the vulnerable individuals and their families who have been subject to this illegal activity and awful intrusion at some of the most difficult times of their lives.
In the past few days, it has been reported that my predecessor, the former Member for Reading West, was one of those targeted by a private investigator implicated in the News of the World scandal, and that he was targeted because he had refused to support a News of the World campaign to allow parents access to the sex offenders register. It is shocking that any hon. Member, or indeed any member of the public, should be subject to such an invasion of their privacy just because they choose not to support a media campaign. If the allegations prove to be true, I hope that justice will be served.
Secondly, I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement this morning giving further details of the judicial inquiry. I also welcome the very forthright views that he has set out in the past few weeks and today on this issue. His frankness about the collective failure of politicians, the press and the police to get to grips with this whole issue much earlier has been very much in line with the mood of the House and of those outside it. The Leader of the Opposition said in the House last week that “all of us” should
“accept our share of responsibility for not having spoken out more on these issues.”—[Official Report, 13 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 391.]
He was right. The Labour Government of the day did not act on the Information Commissioner’s reports of 2006 or on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report of 2003. To be fair, the Prime Minister has also said that the then Opposition did not make enough of those reports either.
We know that phone hacking was discussed in Cabinet by the previous Labour Government, but they did not act. Last week, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) came to the House and spoke at length, absolving himself from responsibility for not taking action on his watch. I do not know whether he forgot, but he was Chancellor and then Prime Minister. He was in charge but he did not act.
By contrast, this Prime Minister has acted decisively. He has taken weeks to set up a public inquiry, not years. I should also add that the freedom of the press is a hugely important part of our democracy. We all want to see a clean press, but we do not want to see a cowed press. I hope that, as the inquiry gets under way, that will be uppermost in the minds of those leading the inquiry.
There has been lots of focus, quite understandably, on News Corp and the Murdochs in recent weeks, but we must also keep it in mind that the issues we are discussing have a bearing on the media as a whole, not just the Murdoch press. As has been mentioned, the 2006 Information Commissioner’s investigation spoke of
“a widespread and organised undercover market in confidential personal information.”
In the Operation Motorman case, the police and the ICO found evidence that there were about 300 journalists working for a wide range of newspapers that had used a variety of techniques to obtain personal information and stories. This morning’s report from the Home Affairs Committee was pretty clear. It said:
“Some of the information could have been obtained only illegally”.
It is clear that it is not only the Murdoch press that has questions to answer and the inquiry needs to take a long hard look at all those issues.
I also welcome the fact that that the judicial inquiry will consider relevant police forces other than the Met, but we need to remember that the vast majority of police officers are good, upstanding and honest. One thing we certainly want to ensure is that, as with former Ministers, former senior police officers do not simply traipse into certain private sector roles just weeks or months after leaving office.
Finally, over the past weeks there has rightly been huge focus in the House on the hacking scandal. That is absolutely right and the way it should be, but we have several inquiries under way right now and we should let them get on with their work. We also need to get back to talking about the economy and jobs: the bread-and-butter issues that matter greatly to our constituents. Last week, we saw a drop in inflation and a drop in unemployment. It is all welcome news, but there are ongoing concerns in the eurozone and other issues that also need the attention of the House.
I welcome all that the Prime Minister has done to set up the judicial inquiry and to create cross-party consensus. It is the right way forward.