I beg to move,
That this House has considered the matter of the Leveson report into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report marks a dark moment in the history of the British press. In the words of the judge, the press have
“wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained…not just the famous but ordinary members of the public”.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report shows in detail the breadth and range of that abuse, with acts of despicable intrusion into people’s lives when many of them had already suffered extensively. In days to come, that must remain at the forefront of all our thoughts.
We must also remember that Lord Justice Leveson falls well short of criticising the whole industry and that he offers praise for its important role in our society. At the heart of our democratic traditions is an irreverent, opinionated and, yes, sometimes unruly press. We live in a country where the press can hold people to account and where free speech is a right, not a privilege, yet with that comes a clear responsibility—a responsibility that Lord Justice Leveson found had not been honoured.
As Members of Parliament discussing the report, we have a heavy and profound duty to put forward our views with passion and force, to set aside party politics, and to discuss the fundamental issues and questions that this report poses. The debate will send a loud message to the press of this country, and that message is that the status quo is not an option. The Prime Minister is clear: we will see change. That change can come either with the support of the press or, if we are given no option, without it. Be in no doubt that if the industry does not respond, the Government will. I do not underestimate the differences of views that will be expressed here today, but I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to consider first what is clear to me—that there is more that unites us than divides us.
My hon. Friend is right. Many of us want to make sure that we have a thriving press into the future, particularly a thriving local press, and he will be reassured to know that I will be meeting members of the local press later this week to make sure we achieve that important objective.
As the Secretary of State knows, when the Leveson inquiry was set up on 13 July last year, it was to be in two parts. We have had the first part, but there is no indication when the second part will take place. Will Lord Justice Leveson chair that second inquiry, or will another chair be selected to deal with the relations with the police and the investigations of the Metropolitan police prior to the inquiry?
I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will know that it is not possible for us to give a timetable for the future of stage 2 of these inquiries at this time, with ongoing police investigations. I am sure he will therefore be aware that it is difficult for me to answer his question in full, although I understand that he wants to get some assurances. However, as soon as the criminal investigations are completed, we will do that.
In his statement the Prime Minister accepted in full the principles set out by Lord Justice Leveson that a new independent self-regulatory body has to be set up, and that it is truly independent in appointments and funding, giving real access to justice for the public and setting the highest standards for journalism through a code, with teeth to investigate and hold the industry to account. Rightly, Leveson set out that it is for the press industry itself to determine how this self-regulatory system is delivered.
The hon. Gentleman will, I know, take a full part in the debate. I ask him to reflect a little. We are saying that we accept the principle of an independent and tough regulatory body, and that we will do what is necessary to make sure that it is tough and adheres to those Leveson principles. I am sure he will want to follow closely some of the cross-party talks that I am having with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who speaks from the Front Bench for his party, on how we achieve just the sort of underpinning that he is talking about.
My right hon. Friend said that if the press do not respond, the Government will take action. If the press produce a system of review which is not fully independent of the press industry, which does not fully accept the jurisdiction of that new body, or which is not able fully to implement standards and conclusions that it reaches, will my right hon. Friend on behalf of the Government say that the Government would then accept the need for an Act of Parliament to achieve these objectives, which she rightly said we fully endorse?
My right hon. and learned Friend sets out clearly what he sees as the key principles contained in Lord Justice Leveson’s report, and I can respond by saying that we will absolutely ensure that those key principles will be implemented, including many of the things he talks about. We are equally clear that if we do not see the action that is needed, we will take action. The status quo is not an option. I will certainly make that clear in my meetings with editors tomorrow.
We live in one of the least corrupt societies on earth, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister on doing everything possible to avoid statutory regulation of the press. Freedom is defined not by people doing freely those things we approve of, but sometimes by them doing those things we do not approve of, and it is a precious thing and vulnerable to inadvertent assault.
My hon. Friend is right, although I remind him that we must ensure that we do not end up with the status quo at the end of this process. We absolutely expect the press to make considerable progress in putting together a self-regulatory approach that is effective.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) asked whether the Secretary of State would back legislation if the cross-party discussions do not produce an effective result, not whether she would take action. Will she please answer the question? Will she back legislation or not?
I can be crystal clear, as indeed was the Prime Minister last week: yes, we will take action along the lines set out in the Leveson report if action is not taken to put together a self-regulatory approach, and that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, would include legislation.
My right hon. Friend has said that the Government accept Leveson’s proposals and that, in the event that there is not a satisfactory regime, the suggestion of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) would be taken up. However, I remind her that Leveson states in paragraph 76 of the executive summary that he also wants to see a “statutory verification process”. It would be a statutory verification process, not a shackling of the press. Is that part of the Government’s current proposals, because we know that self-regulation has been an abject failure for 70 years?
I will answer that point very briefly, although I am sure that it will be subject to much debate later, but then I really must make some progress. There are two aspects of statutory regulation within Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals: one is verification and the other is how we can put in place incentives for membership. I say simply to my hon. Friend—I know that he understands my point because we have had conversations about this before—that we take a very principled approach to this and have grave concern about the use of statutory legislation to underpin the recommendations. We do not believe that it is necessary. We believe that we should be looking at potential alternatives. Indeed, that is what we are discussing in cross-party talks today.
If I could make some progress, I might answer some of the questions that hon. Members are trying to ask.
This is not about the press coming up with a model that suits its own ends. The day for a Press Complaints Commission mark 2 is well and truly gone. We will not accept a puppet show with the same people pulling the same strings. I will be meeting editors tomorrow to hear how they will take this forward. I say to hon. Members that we must not allow this debate to polarise us. We all agree on the need for a tough and independent regulator for the press, that the suffering of the victims and their families cannot be allowed to happen again and that the status quo is not an option. It is the responsibility of this House to ensure that whatever is put in place is effective. This is common ground. Let us put to one side the politics and turn our focus to the principles.
It is right that we look at the detail of how we deliver those principles in practice. Lord Justice Leveson’s report underscores the importance of protecting the freedom of the press. The Prime Minister and I, and other hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, see that there are clear and practical difficulties in drafting legislation without providing an amendable legislative framework. Many in the House today, on both sides of the Chamber, have a deep-seated and grave concern that such legislation could have a profound effect on our ability to safeguard completely the freedom of our press in the future.
I endorse the Secretary of State’s view entirely; I do not think there is a great deal of difference between many people on either side of the argument regarding the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry. However, if she is to provide the incentives to make so-called self-regulation work, does she not feel that it would be useful to bring forward, at least in draft form, the legislation that she thinks may be necessary should the press fail to live up to expectations?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. He may or may not be aware that we are already midway into cross-party negotiations and discussions on this. We have already agreed with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham and the Leader of the Opposition to draft such a Bill to see what that legislation would look like. Our concern is that it then provides a framework that could create real problems in terms of safeguarding free speech into the future. I am glad, though, that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that there is a great deal of similarity between many of our positions, and we should not focus on the differences.
The debate seems to be polarising between favouring legislation or no legislation. Given that Leveson says that those who join the new organisation will have some very clear and important privileges, would we not be legislating on what those privileges are so that they could be backed up, or not backed up, by law? Therefore, is not the debate really about the scope of the legislation rather than being foolishly polarised on the question of whether to legislate?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. The point of discussion today should be the fact that the Leveson report advocates an independent self-regulatory body. Leveson clearly states that he does not think that the Press Complaints Commission ever delivered on that. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the privileges, or incentives, that could be provided and that are outlined in the report could well encourage participation. I suggest to him that we should be considering ways in which we can achieve those privileges without setting them out in legislation.
How would making a newspaper journalist a regulated person with a licence stop future abuse given that the introduction in 2000 of statutory regulation for banking and financial services ushered in more crime, abuse and disasters than we had before? I urge my right hon. Friend to agree with the Prime Minister and to warn this House that there is no easy way of stopping abuse, and that statutory regulation might not do it.
Will Opposition Members give me a few moments to make a little progress?
Who can say what amendments would be made to such a legislative framework in future? Who can make promises for the politicians and the political parties in years to come? The action that we take will have consequences that will be felt for generations to come, and we must make sure that whatever action we take, it is not just for now but for the coming years as well.
I was very disappointed that on another issue—one of tremendous constitutional importance—we were not given a free vote in this place. Given that this topic is arguably more important, will my right hon. Friend consider allowing a free vote when it comes before the House?
I hope that there will be no votes on the issue, because what we need is consensus. We need to move forward with something that we can all agree on.
We should remember that the Leveson report is not just about statutory underpinning, although I think that, as a result of the debate thus far, we could be forgiven for thinking that it is. To reduce it to that does a disservice to Leveson. There are other recommendations that we need to consider carefully. I hope that in today’s debate, hon. Members will discuss the role of Ofcom as set out in Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
One of my constituents was not reappointed as director general of the Office of Fair Trading because he refused to carry out a political instruction from the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to undertake an inquiry, the only purpose of which was to give the Labour Government cover when they increased fuel duties. As a consequence, he lost his job as director general of the OFT. The simple fact is that if Secretaries of State appoint statutory regulators, they will always be subject to some political pressure from Secretaries of State.
I understand fully my hon. Friend’s point, although I draw his attention to the fact that, while I do not know as much about the structure of the OFT, Ofcom is independent as a regulator. Although the chair is appointed by me, its independence is set out in law. I understand his point and some may feel that the proposal is not distant enough from Government.
I would like to make a final point about Ofcom, if hon. Members will allow me. Lord Leveson states clearly in his report that his preference is for this organisation to oversee the efficacy of the self-regulator. He also suggests that if no independent self-regulatory system can be agreed, the Government might have to turn to Ofcom to act as a statutory regulator. The House needs to reflect on that and we have put it at the heart of our discussions with the Labour party.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. Will she consider the fact that most of the offences against victims—phone hacking, paying police officers and so on—broke the law? Instead of doubling up on state regulation, will she consider whether the answer is not also that we should have better and fairer access to the law, because too many victims find it too complex and too costly? Will she raise that with the Justice Department?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Leveson’s report brings out fully the importance of ethics, including those of the police—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is already doing a great deal in that area—and of access to law. The report is being considered in great detail by the Ministry of Justice and I will come on later to some of the practical ways in which we want to make sure that access to justice is available for all.
I want to make some progress, because I know that many right hon. and hon. Members want to contribute to the debate.
Questions also have to be asked about the report’s data protection proposals and their potential impact on investigative journalism. We need to give careful consideration to whether it would be appropriate for the Information Commissioner to investigate and then decide on the public interest, which, in effect, is what would happen if the report were implemented in full. As Lord Justice Leveson himself says, changing exemptions for journalists would be significant. This goes to the heart of the balance between the freedom of the press and the individual’s right to a private life. These issues require serious thought. I hope that in today’s debate we can bring out that and other elements of the report, and not only focus on the narrow issue of statutory underpinning.
Thousands of excellent local and regional journalists will be affected by the changes to the regulatory structures for the press. When my right hon. Friend meets editors later this week to discuss the changes, will she ensure that the local press has an equal voice in the design and operation of the new system?
I will certainly listen very carefully to the concerns of the local press. As I said earlier, we all want to see a thriving press industry. We know the financial pressures and constraints that it is under in this country, whether at a national or local level. We need to ensure that coming out of this process, we have not only a regulatory system that encourages the right sort of journalism, support and reporting, but a thriving press.
I will make a little more progress.
We have not wasted time since last Thursday. Following the publication of the report, we have acted. Lord Justice Leveson recommended that there should be cost protection in defamation and privacy cases to ensure that ordinary people are not put off using the courts by the fear that they cannot afford it. The Justice Secretary has asked the Civil Justice Council to look at that issue and the Government will implement the changes at the earliest possible opportunity.
Additionally, some of Leveson’s recommendations build on work that has already been done by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers on behalf of the police. The report recognises that, because of that work, the policing landscape is changing.
I thank the Secretary of State for her generosity in giving way to Opposition Members. I agree with what she has said about the status quo and about how the media should be monitored and regulated. However, the former editor of the Belfast Telegraph has said in today’s paper that the time when the press can mark their own homework is well gone and that the time when the press can determine what punishment they should face when they have breached the law is well gone. Does she agree?
I agree that we need an independent self-regulatory system that can be overseen and is seen to be effective. I urge the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he has gone through the recommendations in detail. It is not the Government who are saying that the system should be put together by the press, but Lord Leveson himself, and he is right to do so.
I will just finish my point, and then I will give way to a few of my hon. Friends who have been trying to catch my eye.
The police and crime commissioners took office on 22 November and the college of policing will come into being this week. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is being given new powers and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has greater independence and a new non-police chief to head it. Increased transparency will support stronger systems for whistleblowing and both will contribute to a culture of openness and responsiveness, and will increase public confidence in the police. Those are all important actions that have already been taken. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will report to Parliament on all that in January.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way so generously. It is becoming difficult to follow the thread of her argument. That is not her fault, because it has been interfered with by so many people seeking to intervene. I plead guilty to that myself.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm something that Lord Justice Leveson said on any number of occasions? I will quote paragraph 6.1 on page 1771:
“I will say again, because it cannot be said too often, that the ideal outcome from my perspective is a satisfactory self organised but independent regulatory body, established by the industry, that is able to secure the voluntary support and membership of the entire industry and thus able to command the support of the public.”
We are not talking about—and Lord Justice Leveson is not talking about—the statutory control of the press. Can we try to move away from the hyperbole that suggests that Lord Justice Leveson is demanding some form of Stalinist control of the press?
I understand my hon. and learned Friend’s intervention, but I carefully draw his attention to the fact that the issue is about making the new system effective, and that is where the discussion lies. I gently remind him that what the Prime Minister set out last week was very clear: the Government absolutely agree with the principles in Lord Justice Leveson’s report, and we are looking at how they will work in practice.
I was interested in the Minister’s comments about January. For the benefit of my constituents and newspaper editors, will she tell us her ambitions for a resolution to this matter, so that we know we can trust what we read again?
I will give my hon. Friend a much firmer idea about that once I have met the editors tomorrow. The ball is firmly in their court for them to come forward with a clear timetable this week, as I think they have said they will do. I will also set out exactly how the Government will progress with those areas of the report to which we need to respond.
The Minister has spoken about wanting to look forward to a healthy newspaper industry. Does she agree, however, that the industry is dying on its feet because of competition from the entirely unregulated digital media? More and more people are getting their news every day from digital media; they do not go out and buy newspapers. When looking at some kind of level playing field, we must be careful not to kill off newspapers by shackling them so much that they remain completely uncompetitive.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about the future of the press and ensuring that it is economically viable. She also touches on the important issue of online news which, as she will have studied in the report, Lord Justice Leveson feels should be dealt with by the new self-regulatory body.
Although it is clear that the provisions in the Leveson report on the backing up of self-regulation of the press must be carried out, does the right hon. Lady agree that if the House rushes to legislative judgment, that will be seen as Members of the House of Commons taking revenge on the press for what the press have said about them, including me? This is not about Members of Parliament; it is about ordinary people who are victims of press persecution.
The right hon. Gentleman has made his point extremely clearly, and he is right that we must come at this issue in a measured way that looks to the long term, not just the short term. We must look not just at each other in the Chamber today, but beyond these shores as a country that champions free speech and democracy on the world stage. Can we credibly question and challenge others on issues of liberty and freedom if we have placed our own press in a legislative framework? Today is not about what is right here and now, this week, this month or in this Parliament; it is about a profound set of issues for our democracy that will have real and lasting consequences.
Lord Justice Leveson published his report into the future of press regulation last Thursday. Today’s debate demonstrates the Government’s commitment to finding a swift way forward. We have already held two cross-party meetings and will continue to hold more. Today in the Chamber we have the opportunity to discuss the findings of this report in full and to hear from all sides of the House. What we are debating today has profound implications, and we should remember the weight of that responsibility in days to come.
I thank the Secretary of State for affording the House the opportunity to have this debate. Last week, following the Prime Minister’s statement, the House agreed that victims had suffered terribly, that the Press Complaints Commission had failed, and that we must have change. Today, we must focus on how we make that change.
Let me turn right away to the most controversial issue in the Leveson report—the question of statute. At the heart of today’s debate is whether we have independent self-regulation backed by law. It is important that we are clear about why statute is required and what it would do. We need statute because the current system of self-regulation has failed—year after year, for 70 years, and despite seven major reports. It has failed not because there are not people of good will in the press and not because last chances and dire warnings were not given—there are people of good will in the press and last chances and dire warnings were given. Each time there has been a new incarnation of self-regulation by the press, everybody has started with the best of intentions, but every time, because there is no oversight, standards have slipped and wrongdoing has returned.
Does the right hon. and learned Lady recognise that the inquiry was set up because of two scandals—phone hacking and the bribing of police—both of which are against the law and neither of which will be tackled by the form of state intervention she is talking about?
The inquiry was set up—I congratulate the Prime Minister on setting it up, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on demanding it—not only because the criminal and civil law were broken, but because the press demonstrably had not abided by their own standards that they set out in their code of conduct. To stop that happening again, we must decide who overseas the regulator, because currently no one does.
I am sure the right hon. and learned Lady remembers that the inquiry was established because of a number of smears from Opposition Members against the former Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. In view of the fact that the Leveson inquiry cleared my right hon. Friend of any such allegation, should she not apologise?
Lord Leveson actually said he was not going to look into whether there had been a breach of the ministerial code. He said that was not a matter for him, and he was right; it is a matter for the independent adviser on ministerial interests, who did not get the chance to investigate because the Prime Minister did not refer the matter to him.
It would be quite possible within Lord Leveson’s framework for the local press to set up their own board and for another board to look at complaints against the national press. The key point is that the regulation must be overseen to guarantee its continued independence.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend please rebut the myth that the report looked only at criminal activity? The families of the 96 who died at Hillsborough could not sue for libel—there was no defamation. Certainly, untruths were told and defamatory things were said, but the families could never have sued for libel—they had no recourse in law, and it took 23 years to get to the truth. That is why self-regulation failed.
The right hon. and learned Lady has a strong and honourable history on this matter. Earlier this year, she spoke to the Oxford convention and announced she was firmly in favour of press freedom. She said:
“Because the press are now in the dock, it looks like special pleading from a vested interest when they make the case for press freedom. That’s why it is all the more important that politicians must insist on the freedom of the press.”
What has changed?
Will the right hon. and learned Lady please be careful about not overstating the need for statutory intervention? It is quite narrow—it is simply to verify the independent regulator, who comes forth from the press itself, and to provide the tools, so that there can be exemplary damages for those who choose not to be regulated by that new independent regulator. If she overstates the case for statute, she makes arguments against herself that are unnecessary.
We should make the case for statute, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it should be as narrow as possible in scope.
Let me return to my comments and set out why self-regulation has failed. The problem with a purely self-regulatory body and nothing else is that there is a conflict of interest when those doing the judging—the press—are those being judged. I believe that Lord Justice Leveson’s answer to that decades-long problem is ingenious. It has drawn on, listened to and completely understood the concerns of the press. He does not throw out self- regulation, as some expected. Instead, he nominates a body to oversee the self-regulator to ensure it is independent and stays independent.
I will press on with my comments, because many hon. Members want to speak.
That is the core reason why Leveson concludes that statute is, to use his word, “essential”. However, to follow up on the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), all that any statute would have to do is set out criteria about what independence means and check once every three years that it is still independent—that is all. The oversight body—the one prescribed by statute—would have no role in hearing complaints, no role in deciding whether they are justified, no role in laying down penalties, and absolutely no role in deciding anything that does or does not go into a newspaper. That would be down to the independent self-regulator set up by the industry.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for giving way. Does she agree that under Lord Leveson’s proposals, the recognition body would be an independent body that assessed whether the self-regulator was adequate, but that under the current Government proposals it would be the Secretary of State, as a single, lone politician, who is set to stand in the shoes of that recognition body and make that decision individually?
That is a very good point, and I wish I had thought of it myself. [Laughter.] I think, in fact, it was my idea.
Let us be clear: having a statute to guarantee that is not some incidental add-on or optional extra to Lord Justice Leveson’s report. It is a complete contradiction in terms for people to say, “I want to implement Leveson, but without statute.” Leveson says that statute is “essential”.
Let us imagine the Leveson proposals on self-regulation without statute. Although I am sure that even if any new body started off being independent, without statutory oversight there would be no guarantee it would stay that way. It is inevitable that once again it would become controlled by the press, with editors marking their own homework—that has happened again and again. Why should we believe that we can carry on in the same way and that things will somehow be different? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. None of the other suggestions gets anywhere near answering that fundamental point of how to guarantee continuing independence.
Let me turn to Lord Hunt and Lord Black’s proffered solution. They claim that what they put forward is a truly independent system with tough sanctions. However, on closer inspection, it is a different story. They say that there would be an independent chair and board, but they could all be fired—the chair and the whole board—by the press barons just giving notice in writing. Lord Hunt and Lord Black say there would be tough sanctions, with penalties of up to £1 million, but then they say that those sanctions would be determined by the press barons. How is that independent?
Some have suggested that we do not need new statute because we could get a judge to appoint a new body, but a judge would not be able to do that without a statute. Many opponents of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations have said that we must not have statute—that it crosses the Rubicon and would pose a fundamental threat to our democracy. I want to address each argument against statute in turn. The first is that any statute affecting the press automatically ends a free press. We have heard that a lot in recent days, but there is surely an irony and a contradiction in that, for was it not the press themselves who asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for their inclusion in section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998? Is that not amendable legislation? Was it not the press themselves who asked for a new defamation Act? Is that not amendable legislation? The first argument—that any law mentioning the press undermines freedom—therefore does not and cannot hold.
Secondly, it is argued that the statute that Leveson proposes amounts to regulation of the press by a ministerially appointed quango, but this is not direct regulation of the press. The statute would only guarantee the system of self-regulation. It would remain voluntary to join, on the basis of incentives. In that, it is similar to the system in Ireland, which has been in place since 2009. As the Deputy Prime Minister helpfully reminded the House last Thursday, it covers all the newspapers operating in Ireland, which volunteer to be part of the Irish Press Council, which—heavens above!—includes the Irish editions of the Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror, the Daily Star, The Sun, The Sunday Times, The Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Mirror. If that really posed a threat, where were the protests in Ireland? Why have those newspapers signed up? The UK editors say that any press law would end freedom of speech, so why have they not chained themselves to the house of the Taoiseach? The Foreign Secretary says that any press law in Britain would undermine freedom—and, indeed, democracy—around the world, so why has he not summoned the Irish ambassador for a dressing down? The Culture Secretary—
So it’s working!
I am not quite sure what point the right hon. Lady is trying to make—I will have to think about that one.
Thirdly, there is the argument about a press law being the thin end of the wedge. A central feature of our democracy is that it is the responsibility of elected representatives to make and change laws, and we can do that at any time. Frankly, if that is a slippery slope, so is the very existence of Parliament. The only way to address that concern is to abolish Parliament, and I do not hear that being suggested.
Fourthly, let me deal with the argument that what is proposed would inevitably mean cumbersome legislation. Following our cross-party talks on Thursday, the Government agreed to prepare a draft Bill, but the Culture Secretary then said the Government were drafting the Bill only to show why it should not be done. That is why we are preparing a Bill that will show that it can be done in a tightly defined and forensic way, as envisaged by Leveson.
Let us look at the Irish law, which contains the clauses recognising the Irish Press Council. How many clauses do hon. Members think were needed to make that happen? Listening to the Government, we might assume that it took hundreds, but the answer is not hundreds, or even tens; it is just two. It took two clauses, one paragraph in a schedule and one schedule. The legislation is not a leviathan; it did not involve a huge, cumbersome Bill. The Bill that we are drawing up will show that this is possible, and we will, I hope, be working on a cross-party basis to take it forward.
Finally, there is the civil liberties argument. I do not believe that Lord Leveson’s proposals, which we support, would undermine freedom of speech. This is not about politicians alone determining what journalists do or do not write; far from it. The freedom of the press is essential. So, too, though, is that other freedom: the freedom of a private citizen to go about their business without harassment, intrusion or the gross invasion of their grief and trauma. I do not believe that those two freedoms are incompatible. A free press must be a responsible press. It must expose the abuse of power without abusing its own. That is what this debate is about, and that is why we should take forward Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals.
Over the past five years, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which I chair, has examined the issue of the standards and ethics of the press three times. Each time, what we have uncovered has caused us serious concern about the way in which the press operates in this country; we have revealed information that we all found truly shocking.
It is important that we remember the people who have suffered at the hands of the press, including the McCann family, the Dowler family and Christopher Jefferies. However, it is also important to note that all in those cases suffered as a result of breaches of the law. Breaches of the Data Protection Act, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, the contempt of court laws and the libel laws were all involved in the suffering of those people.
That is one of the reasons why I agree strongly with the earlier remarks of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz). There are still big questions to be answered about how serial breaches of the law could take place in newsrooms and how the police appeared to do absolutely nothing about it, despite having the necessary evidence for a number of years. I very much hope that we will see the establishment of part 2 of the Leveson inquiry—whether it takes place under Lord Leveson or not is not the most important point—because we need answers to those questions once the criminal prosecutions have been exhausted.
So far as the breaches of the criminal law are concerned, will my hon. Friend confirm that, if a statutorily based supervisory body were to discover that the criminal law had been broken—through phone hacking, for example—that would become a matter for the police anyway as soon as it was discovered and that, terrible though the suffering of the Dowlers was, their case is, in a sense, really rather irrelevant to the supervisory body that we ought to have?
I am not sure that I would say their case is irrelevant, because it plainly provided evidence of the way in which the press seemed to feel that they were above the law, and that is a matter for a body overseeing ethics and standards. My hon. Friend is right, however, to say that that matter should have been dealt with by the police, and we still need answers as to why it was not.
The point, surely, is that the Press Complaints Commission was part of the problem. It was self-regulating, and for far too long it admitted the “one rogue reporter” line that was being touted by News International because it saw itself as a spokesperson for the industry and for the newspapers, and not as an independent body.
It may surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I agree with him. There is no question but that all of us in this Chamber are of one mind that the system of self-regulation administered by the Press Complaints Commission has failed. The commission produced a report saying that there was no evidence that anyone other than the one rogue reporter was involved, at the same time as my Select Committee produced a report saying that there was ample evidence and that we found it inconceivable that the rogue reporter defence was true. We are all agreed that we cannot continue with a system of self-regulation. The idea of the press marking its own homework, as Lord Leveson rightly put it, does not work and cannot continue—but that is not what is in prospect today.
Victims have been mentioned many times today. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that it is sad that, because they fear that the Government will let them down, the victims have started a campaign themselves. Is that not a sad reflection on what is happening?
It is our job in this House to persuade the victims that what is now in prospect is a different regime that would have the necessary teeth to prevent the kind of abuses they suffered. I believe that that is the case, and that we have a duty to get that message across to them.
Let me take us back to the report our Select Committee produced in 2010. We clearly said that we needed a new body, which needed to have
“the ability to impose a financial penalty”
when the press had failed, and to have a responsibility
“for upholding press standards generally”—
things that the Press Complaints Commission was never equipped to do. We went on to say in that unanimous report of the Select Committee two years ago:
“We do not accept the argument that this would require statutory backing, if the industry is sincere about effective self-regulation it can establish the necessary regime independently.”
Earlier this year, I chaired another Committee, a Joint Committee of both Houses on privacy and injunctions. Again, we looked at these matters in some detail. That body, too, reached a conclusion that
“the current system of self-regulation is broken and needs fixing.”
Again, that Committee recommended a new independent body with stronger powers. The report went on to say —this was supported by Labour members of the Committee —that
“should the industry fail to establish an independent regulator which commands public confidence, the Government should seriously consider establishing some form of statutory oversight”,
but it went on:
“At this stage we do not recommend statutory backing for the new regulator.”
On precisely that point, a number of us here who sat on the Committee did indeed disagree with that and feel that there needed to be some statutory underpinning. Will my hon. Friend inform us how narrow the margin was when it came to endorsing this report at all?
I think I have the figures. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Committee divided at the end—10 in favour, and 7 against. I would point out, however, that among the seven were Lord Black of Brentwood and my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who I think my hon. Friend will find are not necessarily totally in agreement with his particular viewpoint.
The Hunt-Black proposals are no longer on the table. I agree with Lord Leveson that they were not sufficiently independent. It is clear that the new body has to be completely independent of the press, and it has to have a board that does not have serving editors on it. There are elements where a new body could have some kind of statutory support. Some hon. Members may have seen the comments of Shami Chakrabarti, who talked about how a body could have statutory recognition. I would draw the House’s attention to the submission made to the Leveson inquiry by Lord Hunt, in which he pointed out that the Irish Defamation Act 2009 contains a provision that recognises the activity of the Irish Press Council and allows the courts to take account of
“the extent to which the person adhered to the code of standards of the Press Council and abided by the determinations of the Press Ombudsman and determinations of the Press Council.”
That seems to me entirely sensible. It is a way of giving the press incentives to join such a body. However, Lord Hunt went on to say:
“I do not believe this in any way crosses a ‘red line’ for those of us who have serious qualms about a statutory regulator: the Press Council in the Republic of Ireland may be recognised in a statute, but it is not created by it.”
That, essentially, is the difference in this matter. It is a question of whether we trust the press to establish a truly independent body with real powers that will be able to punish breaches of the code, and that the press will abide by it, or whether we believe that the press will not go along with that, and that therefore there must be statutory support. It is not a question of powers; there is no difference between what is on the table in terms of the powers available to the body and what Leveson recommends. It is merely a question of whether we trust the body, and the press, to go along with it. If we do not, we support the idea of statutory regulation. However, we must be clear about the fact that starting to legislate over the press would be a huge step for us to take.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that protecting journalists’ sources is a fundamental principle of investigative journalism? Leveson seems to want to throw that out of the window if the information has been “stolen”. Does he realise that under such a system none of the expenses scandal involving the House of Commons would have emerged, and is that not very worrying indeed?
I agree. I think that there are serious practical problems with some of Lord Leveson’s recommendations, and the hon. Lady has highlighted one of them. The whole area of data protection raises some very big questions. There is also the question of whether Ofcom should have any involvement in press regulation. I think that Ofcom itself would have severe misgivings about that, because it is not what it was set up to do. It was set up to do an entirely different job. It is a Government-appointed regulatory body, and even if it acts as a backstop regulator, that will be giving a Government-appointed body, the chairman of which is appointed by the Secretary of State, a role in the regulation of the press.
Is it not more important for us to establish total public confidence, which has been shattered over many years? My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) mentioned the Hillsborough families, one of whom wrote to remind me of the 23 years that it took to deal with the injustices, which were caused in large part by newspaper reporting, not least by The Sun. Is it not important for us to do that, on behalf of the victims and the public at large?
Of course it is important for us to establish public confidence. What we need to do is persuade the public that things will never be the same again: that the new regime on offer is completely different, that it is independent, and that it has real powers. However, as I think Shami Chakrabarti said at the weekend, the question of whether it requires statutory underpinning is about processes, not outcomes. We need to focus on the outcomes of this.
I think I have already dealt with that, but the right hon. Gentleman is right. Lord Hunt himself suggested that there should be some statutory recognition of the body in the context of, for instance, defamation cases, so that it can be taken into account when damages are awarded. However, that is not the same as setting up a body by statute, or statutory underpinning. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to laugh, but there is a massive difference between the law recognising the existence of a body and the law somehow having power over that body.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) may have slightly misquoted Lord Justice Leveson—wholly unwittingly, I am sure? Lord Leveson identified the Daily Telegraph investigation of parliamentary expenses as an example of investigative journalism coming to the point, but surely the central fact is that there are aspects of privacy law that protect and enhance freedom of expression—for example, the right of journalists to protect their sources.
I have very little time left. I could probably spend another hour discussing the whole issue of privacy law, but I shall merely tell my hon. and learned Friend that I hear what he says.
I am absolutely at one with those in the Chamber who believe that we need to establish—
When Sir David Calcutt produced his second report in 1992, he was damning in his criticism of the lack of serious progress made by the Press Complaints Commission in the previous two years. We in Parliament as well as the press are now reaping the whirlwind of that collective failure. In the intervening years, the Conservatives and then Labour failed to grasp the nettle of press standards. As Lord Justice Leveson makes clear, standards have fallen, not risen, in many, although by no means all, sections of the press. What the McCanns, the Dowler parents, J. K. Rowling and thousands of others have been subjected to should never happen in a society that prides itself on its freedoms, for all these victims have been deprived of the most basic rights of family life and justice to which we are all entitled.
I say to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) and the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) that it is not the case that the problems we are dealing with are simply breaches of the criminal law which have not been investigated. Sir Brian Leveson states in his report:
“There have been too many times when, chasing the story, parts of the press have acted as if its own code, which it wrote, simply did not exist.”
The Prime Minister established the Leveson inquiry at the behest of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition because he knew there had to be major changes to end the intrusion and abuse the PCC and the many previous attempts at self-regulation had failed to end. If the Prime Minister deserves credit for setting up Leveson—and indeed he does—he has, I am afraid, undermined that by his extraordinary and impetuous decision to rubbish, within 24 hours of receipt of the report, Leveson’s key recommendation that there must be some statutory underpinning of a much-enhanced system of independent self-regulation.
I am sure that the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the hon. Member for Maldon, has looked in detail at the fourth volume of the Leveson report, so he will have seen that what is proposed there by way of statutory underpinning includes providing incentives, such as in respect of costs, for the members of the press board—membership of which would be entirely voluntary.
Instead of a serious study of the Leveson report, the British press have produced some of the most extravagant comment I have witnessed from them. That includes Mr Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun, who claimed that Members of Parliament would risk
“looking like Putin or Beijing”
if we had a new press law.
We are all against any semblance of state control of the press. Sir Brian Leveson could not have been more emphatic about that. He says, in terms, that his proposed press board
“should not have the power to prevent publication of any material”
by the press. Instead he proposes a light-touch regulation system.
Mr Kavanagh might have had in mind the proposal on page 1780 of the report, which Sir Brian Leveson considers laudable and admirable:
“Interference with the activities of the media shall be lawful only insofar as it is for a legitimate purpose and is necessary in a democratic society, having full regard to the importance of media freedom in a democracy”.
One could imagine that being said in the Congress of China or Russia.
I hope the hon. Lady makes better points than that if she is called to make a speech in this debate.
Turning to the objections that have been expressed about a light-touch regulatory system, I endorse the remarks of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). First, there is the objection the Prime Minister uttered, which is that
“for the first time, we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 449.]
As I pointed out to the House last Thursday, and as my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out again today, the Prime Minister’s claim is simply incorrect. The Press Complaints Commission came to me when I was Home Secretary to ask for protection to be written into the Human Rights Act 1998, particularly in respect of the apparent ease with which it felt complainants could otherwise get interlocutory injunctions to stop publication of material, for example, where it was likely to intrude into the privacy of individuals. I listened to the PCC and there were negotiations, the result of which is to be found in section 12 of the 1998 Act, subsection (4) of which says that when the courts are deciding whether or not to grant an ex parte injunction, they take into account, among other things, “any relevant privacy code”—the PCC code. In other words, it was the press themselves who wanted statutory force—legal force—to be behind their code, because they wanted protection. That was the crossing of the Rubicon, not anything in Leveson.
The second issue concerns the Irish Defamation Act 2009, to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham made such important reference. The Prime Minister said that we should look at that Act, because it
“runs to many, many pages, setting out many, many powers of the Irish Press Council.”
“It is worth Members of the House studying the Irish situation”—[Official Report, 29 November 2012; Vol. 554, c. 456.]
I have taken the Prime Minister’s advice, but it is a great pity that he failed to study that Act rather more closely. As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, although it runs to 35 pages, the provisions relating to the Press Council consist of one section—section 44—one schedule, which is two and a half pages long, and linking provisions such as those linking back to section 27, which provides a public interest defence for media firms that have signed up to the Press Council and have adhered to its code. I hope that the Secretary of State, or whichever Minister responds to the debate, will answer the question that has been put time and again from the Labour Benches and, to a degree, from her own: if the Irish Defamation Act is good enough for the Irish press, and has worked for them and for the British media with titles in Ireland, why would such a short set of provisions not be good enough for this House and the British press?
Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that Lord Hunt asked for a similar provision to that in the Irish Defamation Act, and that that is not a problem? None of us objects to that; it is the statutory underpinning, which is a completely different prospect, that people find objectionable.
The hon. Gentleman and I must be reading two different Acts, because section 44 of that Act contains statutory underpinning. It gives the Dail, the Irish Parliament, more direct power over the Press Council of Ireland than ever is proposed by Lord Justice Leveson for the press board in the United Kingdom.
In 2007, I was confronted by a journalist whose newspaper is subject to those regulations. I was handed my text messages and told that they were going to be printed. I threatened that Council on that journalist, and those texts never appeared—that Council does have teeth.
It does indeed have teeth. I am afraid that the Secretary of State scored an own goal when she implied that because there had been no references made to the overseeing body it had somehow failed. If she read the Leveson report, she would have seen, on page 1715, that there have been
“between 340-350 complaints per year”
to the Irish press ombudsman, which was set up by this underpinning legislation. However, as people are satisfied with how this independent self-regulation, overseen by statute, works in Ireland, there have been no complaints to the higher body, and neither would there be here.
Extravagant complaints and comments have been made by journalists such as Mr Trevor Kavanagh, who is arguing with a report that does not exist, but quite a number of senior journalists have been altogether more thoughtful. Mr Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail told a seminar preceding the inquiry that
“there’s one area where Parliament can help the press. Some way must be found to compel all newspaper owners to fund and participate in self-regulation.”
Compulsion is the newspapers’ word, not mine, and their system of compulsion is the rolling contract proposal, but Sir Brian Leveson sets out in forensic detail why such a proposal cannot work.
The editors of The Guardian and The Times have both written thoughtful pieces. The editor of The Guardian spoke of the need for an arbitral arm that incentivised the regulated to pursue high standards and penalised anyone who walked away. Mr James Harding, editor of The Times, went further in a lengthy and very considered signed article. He said that the industry must have an “independent, muscular regulator”, and crucially he added that
“the Lord Chief Justice should appoint someone, probably an experienced lawyer, and a panel of two others to oversee this regulator…to prevent backsliding”
“be a guarantor of the regulator’s independence and effectiveness.”
I agree with all of that. The issue for Mr Harding, Mr Rusbridger, Mr Dacre and most other thoughtful editors is how to achieve that end without the underpinning legislation that has been accepted in Ireland. The truth is that they cannot. In legal theory, if the Lord Chief Justice was willing, he could be asked to appoint a couple of retired lord justices of appeal to act as an arbitral body overseeing the regulator, but what would be their terms of reference or the criteria for their appointment? How would they operate? Any sensible Lord Chief Justice would say, “Thank you very much, but I am not getting into that unless I have statutory authority.” That is the fundamental flaw: the idea we can do all that while backing away from doing what was done in Ireland.
I want to make a final point about the internet. The editor of Mail Online, Martin Clarke, was quoted in last Saturday’s Financial Times saying in a rather triumphant tone that the internet had
“destroyed the ability of governments, companies and individuals to control the flow of information to the public”.
This chap, Mr Clarke, is tilting at windmills. It is never our objective or that of anyone else for the state in a free society to control the flow of information to the public. The issue is ensuring that members of the public are not defamed and that their privacy is not unfairly intruded on. It cannot follow that because we cannot do everything we should do nothing.
Seventy years, seven reports. This is where 70 and seven equals nine: the press have had their nine lives. It is time for the Government to recognise that and to agree to implement this magisterial report.
May I begin by declaring an interest as a practising member of the defamation and media law Bar? I speak here, however, as a Member of the House and not as a barrister representing any particular client, claimant or defendant. The fact that I am currently acting for a well-known claimant whose reputation has been grievously damaged in the recent past has no bearing on what I want to say—
I think I might be permitted to know a little more about that case than my hon. Friend does. As it happens, I have over the past 35 years or so—[Interruption.] Would she stop mumbling?
Over the past 35 years or so, I have acted for and advised both claimants and defendants in more or less equal measure. Unsurprisingly, many of the defendants were newspaper publishers, editors and journalists and their broadcast media equivalents.
The House and the public as a whole owe a huge debt of gratitude to Lord Justice Leveson. His report is long but comprehensive. It is thorough and analytical. It contains opinion and recommendations, but they are based on fact, founded on the evidence he heard and read. Neither he nor his report can be described as “bonkers” and the report does not resort to hyperbole, make hysterical criticisms of the media or demand state control of the press. It is, in my view, a fair and balanced report that has exposed and tackled some difficult, if not entirely novel, questions.
I say that the questions were not entirely novel, because in this House in January 1960, a Mr Leslie Hale, who was then the Member for Oldham West, moved to repeal the Justices of the Peace Act 1361, among whose provisions was one to outlaw eavesdropping. A predecessor of mine as Solicitor-General, Mr Peter Rawlinson, then the Member for Epsom, said:
“Translated into ordinary terms, the Bill which the hon. Member seeks to introduce, dressed up like a radical bird of paradise, is nothing less than a modest charter for peeping Toms and eavesdroppers…It is also a charter for other strange people who pester law-abiding citizens and persons of that kind.”
He went on to say:
“The modern use of the Bill is mainly to prevent the ordinary citizen from being pestered by those unbalanced eccentrics who, with an imagined grudge, patrol the outskirts of houses, terrifying families by constant use of the telephone, or by those people who are unbalanced and usually malevolent but who do not break the law by means of assault or trespass. Therefore, there is no weapon which the law-abiding citizen has against them except the use of these powers which may be the only effective one which rests in the hands of such citizens.”—[Official Report, 26 January 1960; Vol. 616, c. 54.]
So over a period of about 600 years the issue of intrusion into the private lives of others by use of illegal listening devices, be it the human ear or electric surveillance machinery, has been current. This is one of the reasons why the inquiry by Lord Justice Leveson was initiated.
At heart, it seems to me that we are discussing the age-old problem now described as the tension between articles 8 and 10 of the European convention on human rights. Very often, people seem to remember the rights, but they do not seem to remember the exceptions to those rights. Article 8 says:
“Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence”,
but it goes on to say:
“There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others”,
so it is very much a qualified right, as is article 10, which provides the right to freedom of expression. It states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.”
But paragraph 2 says:
“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”
There are the tensions between articles 8 and 10, and there also are the exceptions to those two great rights which nobody in the House or elsewhere would find in the least bit controversial.
The issue that we are confronting—my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chairman of the Select Committee, drew this out, as have other Members this afternoon—is not whether we should have state regulation of the press. We are not talking about state regulation of the press in the sense that Mugabe, Putin or the Chinese politburo control the press. What we are talking about is whether the press needs to have a self-regulated body which is recognised by the state as being a competent authority to regulate the press’s activities.
The distinction is important. Much of the argument that one has seen in the press and elsewhere, and to some extent in discussions in and around the House, has been utterly off the point. It is to traduce the work of Lord Justice Leveson to suggest that he wants state control of the press. He has said on any number of occasions—I shall quote one or two examples—that the ideal that he is looking for is that
“the industry should come together to create, and adequately fund, an independent regulatory body, headed by an independent Board, that would: set standards, both by way of a code and covering governance and compliance; hear individual complaints against its members about breach of its standards and order appropriate redress; take an active role in promoting high standards, including having the power to investigate serious or systemic breaches and impose appropriate sanctions; and provide a fair, quick and inexpensive arbitration service to deal with any civil complaints about its members’ publications.”
As a member of the Bar, I would of course like people to litigate—that is how I pay my mortgage—but the short point is that if a system can be devised that has the approval of Parliament and which carries with it public approval and confidence, it seems to me that that mechanism, just as the Financial Services Authority is a body given permission by statute, could allow the press to inhabit a world of free expression, subject to articles 8 and 10, that would not interfere with its rights but would also adequately protect, by self-regulation, the rights of the victims of press intrusion and other forms of activity that are subject to the criminal or civil law. Of course many of the activities that led the Government to set up the Leveson inquiry were already against the criminal law, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) correctly spotted. It is illegal to hack, blag and interfere with other people’s telecommunications under various statutes going right back to the 1361 Act that outlawed eavesdropping.
Did not Lord Justice Leveson say that criminality on an industrial scale was itself part of a persistent culture of abusing private individuals, in particular, who have no recourse unless through my hon. and learned Friend, notwithstanding his modest costs? We in this House at least have a forum, but they have none at all, and that is why the report is so important. It revealed that there was a culture, and the press must deal with that, not just the criminality.
I agree with the premise of my hon. Friend’s point but think that we perhaps draw different conclusions from it. Lord Justice Leveson has stated, as did our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State at the beginning of this debate, that the status quo is not an option, so if we learn nothing else from Leveson, we should learn that what went before cannot go on. It seems to me to be uncontroversial that the PCC is dead, for example. We need some other form of disciplinary body or regulatory system that matches public concern but also has parliamentary approval. We could approve through parliamentary procedure a body that is not statutory, but we could also approve a regulatory body that is not the creature of Parliament but that would be recognised and saluted by statute. There are plenty of other bodies that discipline the professions or other public bodies but that are not controlled by the Government.
Lord Justice Leveson’s approach is to argue that regulation must be independent not only of the press, but of Parliament, but he then calls for a statute, drafted by Parliament, detailing the criteria for recognition of the regulations, and that covers everything, from membership of the regulator to the content of the new rules and its powers. How does my hon. and learned Friend reconcile what strikes me as a fatal paradox in that approach?
I do not have to reconcile it, because I find the answer on page 1,780 in part K of the report. I will not read it out because I do not have enough time, but I suggest to my hon. Friend that it repays reading. He should look at paragraphs 6.38 and 6.39. If I was a member of an appellate court, I would simply ask the shorthand writer to transcribe it into my judgment, but I cannot—I say to the Hansard reporter, have a go. Essentially, my hon. Friend’s point is one that is often made. If I may say so, with a little thought and study of the report, he will find that it is not strictly necessary to have the concerns, genuine though they are, that he displays and that they are dealt with by Lord Justice Leveson.
Time is running short and I have galloped through the points I wanted to make, no doubt inadequately and in a somewhat garbled fashion. There is plenty in the report that touches on the police, the conduct of the press and the appalling treatment meted out to victims, such as the Dowler family and others. That is all a given. It is also a given that the status quo ante must finish.
The debate that we are having, in this House and outside, is about what we mean by statutory regulation. To me, statutory regulation means no more and no less than what Lord Justice Leveson says: that a statute will recognise as an effective way of dealing with press conduct—and wider media conduct, including the internet—the disciplinary system to which the press must adhere. Clearly, we need buy-in from the widest possible section of the media, including the ordinary traditional press—the newspaper groups—and television and broadcast media through to the local press and others. I recognise that there will be difficulties over individual bloggers and so forth.
If we concentrate on what this report is not about, we miss a trick. Let us concentrate on what it is about, which is the democratic and constitutionally proper regulation of a disciplinary system.
I was a staff journalist for 10 years. For nine of those years, I worked for the Daily Mirror, which at its zenith sold 5 million copies a day. I reported directly to the editorial director, Hugh Cudlipp, this country’s greatest ever popular journalist. Cudlipp was obsessive about factual accuracy and fair reporting. The excesses that led to the Leveson inquiry could never have happened in Cudlipp’s bailiwick. I was proud to be a journalist and remain a member of the National Union of Journalists to this day.
It would be difficult to retain that pride if I were a working journalist in the newspaper industry today. Respect for fact has almost vanished. When I was Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, a newspaper printed a big story about our Committee going to Los Angeles. I rang up the journalist who wrote the story and said, “It isn’t Los Angeles—it’s Scarborough.” The journalist replied, “Oh, it’s all the same thing.” Fair reporting: tell me another joke! The dictum in 1926 of C. P. Scott, the editor of The Manchester Guardian, is dead and buried. He said of the newspaper:
“Its primary office is the gathering of news. At the peril of its soul it must see that the supply is not tainted. Neither in what it gives, nor in what it does not give, nor in the mode of presentation must the unclouded face of truth suffer wrong. Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
Twenty years ago, the National Heritage Committee, of which I was Chairman, conducted an inquiry into privacy and media intrusion. What it said in its report, published in March 1993, might just as well have been written today:
“There cannot be a free society without a free press…a free society requires the freedom to say or print things that are inconvenient to those in authority…While continual antagonism between the press and persons in authority is unnecessary, critical tension between them is an essential ingredient of a democratic society and far preferable to collusion between the press and public figures…At the same time, in a democratic society there must be a right to privacy as well…it must not be ignored by those who claim that everything that everybody does is fair game, so long as it provides a saucy story to be published in the diary column of a broadsheet newspaper or across the front page of a tabloid…The Committee’s concern, in conducting this inquiry, has been mainly with the ordinary citizen who in the normal course of his or her life will never come into contact with the broadcast or written media except as a viewer, listener or reader; but who suddenly becomes of interest to the media, due often to circumstances beyond his or her control, such as becoming a crime victim or being related to the victim of a crime or terrorist act. Such people, as a result of injudicious, thoughtless or malicious reporting, can suffer additional distress at what is already a time of trauma and shock. Their family relationships, their jobs, their businesses and their careers can all be seriously damaged. The Committee does not believe that anyone has the right to inflict such harm on innocent persons.”
The Committee went on to say:
“A balance is needed between the right of free speech and the right to privacy. The Committee’s view is that at present that necessary balance does not exist, and in this Report it recommends action to achieve it. The Committee does not believe that this balance can or should be achieved by legislation which imprisons the press in a cage of legal restraint…The Committee would be deeply reluctant to see the creation of any system of legal restraints aimed solely and specifically at the press or the broadcast media. It believes that self-restraint or, as the Committee prefers to call it, voluntary restraint, is by far the better way.”
It recommended the enhancement of
“voluntary regulation by the press through the strengthening of the Press Commission (which the Committee recommends should succeed the Press Complaints Commission) and its Code, and expansion of the Commission’s scope”,
“creation of a statutory Press Ombudsman, as a back-up to the Commission’s role.”
My hon. Friend intervened just as I was about to go on to that very point. Twenty years ago, the National Heritage Committee made those recommendations. We analysed the disease and proposed a remedy. During the four remaining years of the then Conservative Government, nothing whatever was done. I am sorry to say that, during the 13 years of the Labour Government who followed, nothing at all was done either. We have known about this disease for very many years. The Leveson inquiry was founded because of new and horrific revelations about what the press did. What the press was doing 20 years ago should have been remedied then, but neither party did so. We face the same problems with the press that we faced in 1993, except that we now know far more about the malpractices of the press than we did then.
We can wait no longer. Even before our 1993 report, in 1989 David Mellor warned the press that they were drinking in the last-chance saloon. In the 23 years since then, the press have been on a prolonged pub crawl. Now this House must say, “Time gentlemen, please.”
I am as firmly opposed to statutory control of the press as I have ever been. That is the ethic of a free press in any country. We went to the United States and saw the way in which it could regulate the excesses of the press through privacy Acts protected by the fifth amendment. We could have had the same thing here. We could have had a privacy Act that applied not only to the press and that was protected by a public interest defence. It would have been valid, because when Clive Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for revelations about the sinking of the Belgrano, he pleaded the public interest and the jury acquitted him. We therefore had a functioning system for protection, but what happened then is that my good old friend, Douglas Hurd, brought a Bill before Parliament to abolish the public interest defence under the Official Secrets Act.
As I have said, I am as opposed to statutory control of the press as I have ever been, but the press cannot go on pretending to regulate itself while not doing so. Although the Leveson report’s recommendations are not perfect—the gaps in the way in which the body is to operate are clear to anybody who reads the report and will cause problems in implementation—they are incomparably better than what exists now and the alleged improvements proposed by the press.
As someone who would be exceptionally reluctant to vote in this House for statutory backing of a voluntary press regime, I say firmly to the press proprietors, “Either you establish the Leveson regulation regime on a voluntary basis fast, without dragging your feet, and ensure that all proprietors, including Richard Desmond, participate, or you will be responsible for statute entering into press regulation.” It is up to the press. There is a short time for them to make that decision. They will be responsible if statute enters into press regulation. It is important for them to bear that in mind in the short period that remains before decisions are made.
Two questions must be asked of any and every proposal for legislation. The first is what problems it will solve and the second is what problems it will create.
First, the problems that gave rise to the Leveson inquiry were phone hacking, bribing and outrageous criminal libel. Those are already against the law or legal redress exists for them. The problem was a failure to enforce the law. Leveson boldly dismisses those issues in asserting, without adducing any evidence, that
“More rigorous application of the criminal law…does not and will not provide the solution.”
Of course it will. It is now, belatedly, doing so. Scores of people have been arrested and face serious charges. That is a powerful deterrent against any repetition.
The apparatus of independent regulation backed by statute, which Leveson proposes, would have no powers to address the very problems that he was supposed to be dealing with. Indeed, it could not do so, because they are matters for the police and the judiciary. His solution would not have prevented or provided punishment for the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone, the payments to police by the News of the World or the vile libel by the Sunday Express of the McCanns. Indeed, Leveson states in his recommendations that
“The Board should not have the power to prevent publication of any material, by anyone, at any time”.
The board could not, therefore, have stopped that libel.
If Leveson had acknowledged that, it would have truncated his report, so he went ahead and proposed a regulatory structure that, amazingly, does not specify the problems with which it is supposed to deal. It is a solution looking for a problem. That, in my experience, is a dangerous thing to create. It would have powers to draw up a code of practice, but Leveson does not spell out what the contents of the code should be. The independent regulator, with the approval of its statutory minder, but not of this House, would be able to select the problems that it tackled.
The second question is what problems the proposal might create. Leveson was goaded into making complex proposals by the two most dangerous phrases in the political lexicon: “Something must be done” and “The status quo is not an option.” That is the mantra of those in the commentariat who have no idea what should be done, but who want to sound positive. I have little sympathy for the newspapers that invariably demand unspecified Government interference to solve any problem and now find themselves hoist by their own petard. The status quo, however unsatisfactory, is sometimes less bad than all the alternatives. Churchill said that democracy is the worst kind of government except for all the alternatives, and I believe that a free and unregulated press, with all its failings, is the worst kind of media except for all the alternatives, which, by necessity, involve state regulation.
I do not have a rosy view of the press and I suffered from them repeatedly over 20 years. I remember the “back to basics” initiative, when John Major’s use of that phrase was taken by the media as advocating family values, even though he made no reference to that. The press claimed it was their duty to investigate the private life of every Cabinet Minister. They called on all my neighbours, offering them money if they had “any filth about Lilley.” They offered rewards in the local pub opposite my house for people who knew anything about me or could see any “goings on” in our bedroom. Worst of all, the Daily Mirror made its front-page splash a story about me visiting my nephew who was dying of AIDS. It was intended to smear me in some vile way, but it simply caused immense distress to my sister. It was a vile time so I know how horrible a free press can be.
Had the strong, independent regulator underpinned by statute that we are considering existed, would—and should—it have called off the press hounds during “back to basics”? There were no calls from the Opposition Benches for the then regulator to do so. I do not believe that a regulator should have the power to do so, but if it did have such a power, the decision would be intensely political. We would be handing over to the regulatory body a political power of which we need to be aware.
Those of us who have sympathy with Leveson’s case are not seeking to hand over powers. We are seeking to establish—I think there is common ground across the House on this—whether the press should set up a robust self-regulatory body. There is nothing from our experience of the past 70 years that offers any confidence that it is capable of doing that, which is why some of us believe—as Lord Justice Leveson said—that there should be some statutory validation of that self-regulatory body.
I am in favour of the press having better standards but the best form of regulation is what we saw—The Guardian exposing the failures of the News of the World; “Panorama” exposing the failures of “Newsnight” —not a regulatory body, whether or not underpinned by the state. My hon. Friend is uncharacteristic. Those who jump to the conclusion that we need state-backed regulation assume that that is always an improvement on voluntary actions and arrangements. Such faith is a triumph of hope over experience and people forget the law of unforeseen consequences. Regulation invariably has unforeseen—but not necessarily unforeseeable—consequences.
I will not at the moment. Lord Leveson proposes giving a state regulator the power and duty every two or three years to review and approve—or disapprove—the code and how it is implemented and enforced by the regulator. That is either a substantial power with important consequences or a trivial power with negligible consequences. The latter is unimportant so why insist on it? If the power is significant and will have substantial ramifications and consequences for the way the regulator behaves, the content of the code and the way it is enforced, we should look at it very carefully.
I know from many years of studying regulation that one consequence of regulators being given the power to review and prescribe detail is that the regulator—the state supervisor—will at every biennial or triennial review demand not less but more and stricter regulation. Has my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) ever known a regulator demand less regulation rather than more? It is a recipe for regulatory creep and increasingly detailed specification by the state supervisor of what the so-called independent regulator must do.
The other consequence that some fear from a regulatory system that is overseen and supervised by a statutory regulator is that the regulator will nudge the code and its enforcement in line with the prejudices of the Government of the day. I doubt that that would be the immediate consequence, although it could be the consequence in the long term, but the statutory body that oversees how the regulatory apparatus works would follow either the Government’s prejudices or its own. We want to beware of that. If the statutory body is like the regulatory structures we normally set up, we will have a pretty clear idea how it will behave, but by definition it will be outside the direct control of the House, so hon. Members will have no say in it.
I have an objection in principle to a statutory body or a body underpinned by statute both making and enforcing the rules. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that such a blurring of powers in the new body risks arbitrary decision making and is inimical to the rule of law?
Exactly; that is very much what I fear if the statutory body, following its own prejudices, determines the contents of the code and how it is enforced. Such a body would almost inevitably be made up of the sort of people who run and control the BBC. The BBC Trust has got into trouble for telling untruths about how it decided there should be unbalanced coverage of climate change and many other things, so we know the sort of prejudices such bodies have.
Lord Leveson specifies only one item of the code that the new body should contain. He says that it should “equip” the
“body with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation.”
The body will be a politically correct one, enforcing politically correct standards on the media and press.
The body will also have the power to establish a
“ringfenced enforcement fund, into which receipts from fines could be paid, for the purpose of funding investigations.”
It will therefore have an incentive to levy fines, and in that way it will carry out investigations to increase and enhance its power and control over the so-called independent regulator.
No. I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
The House should think seriously about setting up a body of statutory supervision that has detailed and substantial powers to influence how the so-called independent regulator behaves, and that has an incentive to enhance, increase and make more detailed that interference in regulation. The House will have no direct control over it, so it will therefore be an abnegation of the House’s duty.
The free press is vile, but it is better to have a free press with all its failings than to have a state-controlled and regulated press. I hope we do not go down that route.
As hon. Members know, the press of late have come in for some knocking—justifiably—for scandal, corruption and illegal practice, but it is also obvious from the inquiry that urgent action needs to be taken to restore the public’s confidence in the media. I do not intend to dwell on the reasons for the inquiry because all hon. Members agree on them. We also agree that it is vital that freedom of the press is maintained and upheld, as it is in any strong democracy, but I was glad that the inquiry did not shy away from controversy, and that it recommended, in effect, a regulatory body whose independence is guaranteed by law. We have heard fine speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House—there are entrenched feelings on both sides, and this debate is an important one.
Unlike wholly independent regulation, regulation by either the state or the media would clearly fail to be truly accountable. At the same time, it is vital that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so protecting freedom of expression and high standards of journalism is non-negotiable. Much attention has been paid recently to the kind of model we could look at for the regulated body. Something similar to the Office for Judicial Complaints or those bodies overseeing medical practitioners, vets, barristers or lawyers, have been suggested by some. There is, of course, a crucial distinction. They are licensed and, because they are licensed, they are entitled to practice, and that is an entirely different thing altogether. Incidentally, all those bodies are creatures of statute and nobody says that they interfere politically with anybody delivering services. However, I would think that every journalist would baulk at having to be licensed, and naturally so.
We need something to replace the Press Complaints Commission, which palpably has failed over many years to deliver. It has been characterised by lack of teeth and ineffectual compromises and, in addition, it has only covered the actions of the press that have opted into the system. Some serial transgressors decided to opt out and redress against them was then limited to the libel courts, access to which was unaffordable for many people—indeed, the vast majority.
We have heard about the Irish model. Although that is not a statutory body, it is recognised in legislation—the Defamation Act 2009. It has the power to deal with complaints made against its member publications. There is also a press complaints ombudsman, and both the ombudsman and the Press Council of Ireland are funded by a levy paid by each member title, based on circulation. Member titles of the PCI become members on a voluntary basis and are subject to a code of practice. Interestingly, as has been mentioned, all UK newspapers that also publish in Ireland have joined the PCI, and that includes even those that now oppose what they think is statutory regulation in the UK. During the inquiry, oral evidence was heard from many corners. A number of individuals suggested that the PCI could be a model to be replicated in England and Wales, and that it is recognised by statute, but not set up by statute.
The PCC is UK-wide. It is confusing, however, that despite servicing all parts of the UK, the PCC, which is based in London, states on its website:
“Newspapers from all four countries circulate across borders and are often owned by the same companies. Separate PCCs…would lead to confusion…as well as considerable additional expense.”
It is disheartening that the Prime Minister has hitherto hinted that he is reluctant to follow suit and implement the findings of the inquiry in total. Supporting regulation in principle is not enough. Changes must be implemented in practice for there to be a meaningful change. We have heard about 70 years and seven attempts and so on, but central to any new system must be access to restitution, and a simple and easy-to-navigate complaints process.
In his statement to the press last week, Sir Brian Leveson chose his words very carefully. He pointed to the elephant in the room: the internet and Twitter, which is another issue that we will have to look at in the not-too-distant future. I would welcome comments from Government Members on how we can tackle that anomaly.
Lord Leveson’s inquiry was a careful and thoughtful process, and its recommendations have been reached by hearing a vast amount of evidence. Sir Brian has said that statutory underpinning is vital. He was at pains to say that freedom of the press was vital, and that freedom from political interference is, of course, extremely important. On statutory underpinning, he said:
“What would the legislation achieve? Three things. First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press. Second, it would provide an independent process to recognise the new self-regulatory body and reassure the public that the basic requirements of independence and effectiveness were met and continue to be met; in the Report, I recommend that this is done by Ofcom. Third, by recognising the new body, it would validate its standards code and the arbitral system sufficient to justify the benefits in law that would flow to those who subscribed; these could relate to data protection and the approach of the court to various issues concerning acceptable practice, in addition to costs consequences if appropriate alternative dispute resolution is available.”
He goes on to say:
“Despite what will be said about these recommendations by those who oppose them, this is not, and cannot be characterised as, statutory regulation of the press.”
We have heard a great deal about the great and good so far in this debate, and it has been interesting, but does the right hon. Gentleman think that sometimes Leveson might just say something—it might actually be so—but that we might take a different view?
Having read large parts of the report—it is a carefully constructed document that has evaluated the evidence—I take Sir Brian Leveson at his word. I do not see what benefit would accrue to him if he said something he did not believe to be true, and I do not think for one minute that he would say that.
Others may disagree, of course—that is why we are having the debate. I respect the fact that others may disagree—that is what debate is all about.
Personally, I do not quite see the merit in the current debate being about “non-statutory” or “statutory”. It seems to me that there will have to be some form of legislation in any event. Some argue that because the head of Ofcom is appointed by Government, choosing Ofcom or a similar body as the underpinning regulatory body—or, say, a version of it—could lead to political interference. I had a debate on the radio on Friday with the ex-head of legal affairs at the Telegraph—a man I have known for many years and whose views I respect. He proposed the notion that involving Ofcom amounted to possible political interference. I asked him for examples of where Ofcom had acted politically in the past. I am yet to hear of any example of where that may be the case. Sir Brian’s proposals are clearly well thought out and the exact opposite of “bonkers”. The Government should adopt them in full.
The right hon. Gentleman has just confirmed what I was hoping he would say—that he feels that the proposals are not bonkers. We have all been written to by Christopher Jefferies on behalf of the Hacked Off campaign. He is a constituent of mine and someone I have known for over a decade. He was arrested, during which time he was traduced by the national newspapers, something he has said was the worst period of his life. He asks us to endorse Lord Leveson’s proposals. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?
Yes, I do—that has been the theme of what I have been saying for the last seven minutes. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman has got his intervention in and that is quite important. However, I say with respect that I agree. We have all received letters from families and individuals who have suffered immensely at the hands of the press of late. I therefore welcome the proposals. We owe it to all those families and individuals to get it right, because if we in Parliament fail to grasp the nettle for the eighth time in 70 years and do not put matters right, it will be tantamount to letting them down very badly indeed and turning our backs on this historic opportunity.
Surely it is up to us as parliamentarians to ensure that we build those protections in. There are many important core things that we need to ensure. For instance, we need to ensure that people’s sources are kept in the private domain, and there are many other things that we need to do. Those are the details that we shall have to go through carefully in the coming weeks.
Like the press, we Members of Parliament are now held in low esteem, because of the scandals involving some Members. Failure to deal decisively with this problem without fear or favour will plunge us into further and deeper opprobrium, and we will deserve it.
We are having today’s debate because the current system of media self-regulation has not only failed, but failed spectacularly, again and again. I suspect that the majority of Members in the Chamber agree on what now needs to be achieved—in other words, the outcome. Where there are differences, they relate to the method of delivering that outcome. An editor of the “ConservativeHome” website—a vehicle that has been vociferously opposed to any kind of legislation—wrote a few days ago, just before the report came out:
“What’s needed post-Leveson is a settlement that helps…ordinary victims…That’s a new, non press-run complaints body with the power to fine and punish papers—which is, none the less, independent of the state.”
I agree with that absolutely, and I am sure that most other Members do. The question is: can we achieve that without legislation? I do not think that we can.
I question some elements of the Leveson report, which I will come to in a moment, but I do not accept the hyperbole emanating from those media commentators who are opposed to change. Nor do I think it responsible for otherwise serious papers to imply that those MPs who advocate some form of regulation are motivated by self-interest. I think we can all agree that The Daily Telegraph was scraping the barrel when it accused my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind)—who is not in his place at the moment—of taking revenge on the media because he had been criticised for supporting the poll tax in 1990. I do not know my right hon. and learned Friend particularly well, and there are many issues on which we disagree, but it strikes me as unlikely that he would harbour a grudge for 25 years over something so routine.
We have been told that any form of legislation would irreparably damage the ability of the press to do what it does best—uncovering corruption, exposing hypocrisy, holding the elite to account—and that our democracy would be impaired as a result. However, no serious commentator, and no MP, is advocating any measure that would weaken the scrutiny of elected representatives or hand them any control over the press. At most, some MPs are calling for statutory recognition of an independent regulator. We want something that looks like the Press Complaints Commission but that is not controlled by the very people it exists to regulate—in short, a PCC that is independent of the media and of politicians, and that has the power to impose fines and demand apologies.
None of this is inherently new. There is nothing new about fines—the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror were both fined this year for contempt of court—and the principle that journalists and newspapers should abide by a code of practice is well established. It has been accepted by editors and proprietors for decades, since the editors’ code of practice came into being. The difference is that a new code might be more than simply a fig leaf.
Some commentators argue that a new statute would provide a greater opportunity for a future authoritarian Government to gag the press. That is an illogical argument. A statute can be drafted to prevent amendment other than by fresh primary legislation, which would leave a future Government in exactly the same situation as the one we are in today. Regardless of that, however, it is a basic fact of democracy that with enough votes, any Government can pass any law they like, as the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) pointed out earlier. I suppose that that is one of the downsides of any democracy, as well as one of the upsides.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point; I agree with him.
A new statute to make independent regulation effective would improve investigative journalism, if it included express public interest defences. It would ensure that when the ends were in the public interest, the means would be justified. The example of The Daily Telegraph has already been cited, but I will give it again. The information that led to the expenses scandal was illegally accessed, but it was so obviously in the public interest that no one has ever challenged the newspaper. Theoretically, it could have been challenged. We now have an opportunity to protect journalists engaged in that kind of activity.
Let us not pretend that the state does not already influence the media; it does. There are countless laws relating to the press, a number of which—defamation and contempt, for instance—bear directly on the content of newspapers. What is more, despite arguing vigorously against any form of state intervention in the media, Lord Black and Paul Dacre have both advocated the use of legislation in their own submissions to Leveson. Both advocated a tribunal that could hear defamation and privacy cases and protect newspapers from high legal costs and damages, and both acknowledged that that would require statute. It does not follow that legislation would inhibit journalism. For example, Finland, which has been No. 1 on the world press freedom index in eight of the past 10 years, has a system of independent press regulation backed by statute. In 2003, it passed a law that gave people a right of reply and gave publications a duty to correct.
Television has a far higher level of regulation than anything I—indeed, most people in the Chamber—would endorse for newspapers, but it is worth noting that, no matter what survey we choose to look at, we see that television remains the country’s most trusted medium. Neither is television journalism cowed. Every Government, more or less without exception, have taken issue with the BBC, fought with the BBC and actively disliked the BBC. In addition, many of the recent high-profile exposés—for example, of Jimmy Savile, Winterborne View, of “The Secret Policeman”, racism in Polish football and so on—came from television.
Those who oppose any form of legislation have genuine fears, and I absolutely do not seek to discount them or pretend they do not exist. Good regulation would, I believe, improve our newspapers without inhibiting any public interest journalism; bad legislation would do immeasurable harm. There is room here to get it very wrong.
I want to point briefly to what I believe is a mistake made by Lord Leveson. The same “ConservativeHome” editor I cited earlier made a statement that I thought risible at the time. He said:
meaning advocates of legislation,
“want to create a climate of opinion in which, for example, doubt can’t be expressed about whether global warming is driven by human activity.”
Having read much of the Leveson report, although I admit not all of it, I have some concerns. Instead of confining himself to protecting the victims of newspaper smears and malpractice—Christopher Jeffries, Milly Dowler and so forth—I believe Lord Leveson has strayed beyond his brief. Let me quote directly from the report:
“Overall, the evidence in relation to the representation of women and minorities suggests that there has been a significant tendency within the press which leads to the publication of prejudicial or pejorative references to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or physical or mental illness or disability…A new regulator will need to address these issues as a matter of priority, the first steps being to amend practice and the Code to permit third party complaints.”
The rumbustious, politically incorrect and sometimes irresponsible—and, in my view, occasionally, appalling—approach of the tabloids is not to everyone’s taste, but in an open society, it is part of the rough and tumble of free expression. I know I am not in a minority on either side of the House when I say that we must never make it possible for lobby groups with their own political agendas to suppress free speech. Unless there is an individual victim with a legitimate grievance, the regulator has no business interfering.
Could my hon. Friend produce an example of such a system somewhere other than Finland and Ireland? One of the problems of this debate is that it is difficult to point to a country such as the United States, France or Germany where such a regulator exists, but perhaps I have misunderstood.
I sense that an answer is bubbling up in the speech we will hear from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). I cannot answer my hon. Friend’s question, as the examples I have given are the examples I know, but it does not change the principle. In effect, we are effectively talking about taking the editor’s code—a code written up by the editor—and giving it teeth. What I cannot understand is why the media commentators who so viciously oppose any kind of legislation would oppose putting into law something that they themselves have deemed okay and appropriate because they have designed it themselves. There is a break in the argument there that I am yet to understand.
I will actively support the creation of a genuinely independent regulatory body, backed up in law, that exists to even the playing field, so that newspapers can be held to account for their behaviour, so that individuals can seek fair redress and so that the code can be seen as real and not, as it is today, synthetic. I would not support a Bill that went beyond that. In common with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham—I mention Peckham and the other lovely part of the constituency—I support the creation of a slim Bill that guards against slippage and creep, but which does the job.
Finally, I want to make a suggestion. When the Secretary of State meets editors tomorrow, I urge her to ask them to develop a proper plan—not the already and widely discredited Hunt and Black proposals, but a real plan—and then to present it early next year, in January or February. Parliament should then be invited to decide in a free vote—in my view, it must be a free vote—whether the plan goes far enough. If we decide that it does, that is the end of the matter. If we decide it does not, we would commit ourselves to creating a new PCC backed up by statute. As a means of avoiding division in this House, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said she wishes to avoid, over such a complex and highly sensitive issue, I can think of no better mechanism.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who made what I thought was a cogent and clear statement of the case. Although I did not agree with the conclusions that the Secretary of State has reached—let us hope, pro tem—I strongly share her view that there is not that much between most Members about what needs to be done about the conduct of the press. I agree most strongly with the views expressed by the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) who said that if there is a conflict between the victims of the press and the owners of the press, this House must come down clearly on the side of the victims.
Members have spoken from their own personal experience—I, too, have had my private life dragged through the pages of the tabloids. As a holder of public office—I was a member of Lewisham council for 20 years before I came to this House 20 years ago—I might be regarded as fair game, but other members of my family and my friends did not stand for public office, and none of my election literature ever featured any of them. It was not because I was ashamed of them, but because I was not asking anybody to vote for them. I was asking people to vote for me, and the wise people of Lewisham repeatedly did so over the years.
I am prepared to take a bit of rough and tumble myself, but one of my daughter’s friends had her school staked out by journalists from one particular tabloid, which I think is absolutely unforgiveable. People in that situation need not just our sympathy and warm words but our protection, and we need to formulate a system so they can obtain it. I disagreed in a number of ways with the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley). We do not need just a punitive system, but a preventive system—not one where people can get redress, but where they are protected in the first place from having to undergo these traumas.
Let us not forget where the origins of the Leveson report lie. Most Members will recall the famous publication by a chap called Peter Burden—“Fake Sheikhs and Royal Trappings”, a story about the News of the World. In one part of the book, he recounts a conversational exchange with one of the journalists at the newspaper. Let me stress, however, that anybody who believes that the News of the World was a one-off and that the problem has now been solved is living in a dream land. This shows the way the tabloid press behaves. The conversation culminated with a Mr Greg Miskiw—currently, I believe, before the courts, awaiting trial for illegally accessing telecommunications—saying:
“that is what we do—we go out and destroy other people’s lives.”
That is clearly the most damning statement in the book, but it goes on. A particular reporter left the News of the World, it says, but
“nothing changed. Over many years the paper has set out deliberately and without compassion to destroy other people’s lives in order to sell newspapers. The supreme discomfort of others is meat and drink to the paper, and the extent to which they hurt people concerns them only as far as the cost of any damages that might subsequently be claimed. Cynical judgements are made about the price of knowingly committing some actionable offence, assessing what a likely settlement would be, and balancing that against the anticipated increase in sales.”
That is the morality of tabloid journalism—and it is and has been rife throughout the industry.
I will say that those excesses have been curbed to some degree in recent years—or certainly in the most recent year. Since the establishment of the Leveson inquiry, there has been a marked improvement in behaviour, but only because of what Leveson might bring forward. If they can get round this hurdle, they will go back to doing exactly the same again in the future.
My good friend raised an important point when he quoted Peter Burden. Does he agree that perhaps the most extreme example is the case of the late Princess Diana? We will all welcome the news that the Duchess of Cambridge has announced that she and Prince William are expecting their first child. Do we also think that the press should observe their recent conversion, and give the couple the privacy that they deserve in the early days of the pregnancy?
I am hardly likely to disagree, am I? [Laughter.] Good luck to them, and so say all of us. I am taken aback by the sheer irrelevance of the question. If I may, I will get back on track, and return to the subject of the conduct of the press.
The Press Complaints Commission has never been a natural arbiter or umpire in these matters. It has always been the creature of the newspapers and their proprietors, year after year, but it has not always been so staggeringly ineffective. Examples that I have heard in the recent past of the sheer ineptitude and incompetence of its leadership indicate that any future statutory body, or whatever we call it, should not include anyone who has ever been connected with it. It has betrayed the British public by pretending that it can police the excess of the press and failing dismally to do so, and by failing so dismally, it has encouraged the worst excesses of the tabloid press.
After last Thursday’s statement, my good friend—although not in political terms, as he sits on the other side of the House—the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and I attended the same event in the City. We spent the best part of 20 minutes arguing animatedly about the Leveson report and our responses to it. The hon. Gentleman and I have different views, but most of those 20 minutes were occupied by an argument that is one of the features of this place and the Members in it: we were arguing over whether he agreed with me or I agreed with him. We were both seeking to achieve the same thing.
As others have said, legislation will result from Leveson, and so it should. This is the first of many debates on the subject. We need to apply ourselves, with the best of intentions, to describing exactly what that legislation should be. As others have already declared, it should be minimalist but also robust. It should give and guarantee freedom to the independent press regulator, and also enable it to do its job.
The idea that the press can be trusted is a strange one, because all the evidence has shown that they cannot. Not only do they believe that they should be left to their own devices—that they are above control and regulation—but they openly flaunt the fact that they believe that to be the case. Last week, The Spectator—a magazine which, I am led to believe, is much read by Members on the other side of the House, although I have to say that I have read it myself on occasion—stated:
“If the press agrees a new form of self-regulation, perhaps contractually binding this time, we will happily take part. But we would not sign up to anything enforced by government. If such a group is constituted we will not attend its meetings, pay its fines nor heed its menaces.”
However—and we can all be grateful for this—
“We would still obey the (other) laws of the land.”
How very generous! How very kind! How very noble! Perhaps we should ring The Spectator once a week and ask, “Which laws do you want to abide by this week? Which laws do you want to abide by next week? Which laws do you not care for and will have nothing to do with?”
The Spectator went on to say:
“But to join any scheme which subordinates press to parliament would be a betrayal of what this paper has stood for”
in all the 15 years
“since its inception in 1828.”
I added the bit about the 15 years—it is not actually there—but, by Spectator standards, it is not much further forward than that.
What those people are basically saying is that they are above the law. This Parliament and the British people can say what they like, but if it does not meet their approval, they will not abide by it. That is the calibre of the people with whom we are dealing, and we cannot trust them to act in the public interest.
They cannot possibly have meant that; otherwise they would not have alluded to all the “other” laws of the land. They meant that this would be a law of the land, and that they would not obey it.
Why do we have the rule of law? What is the purpose of this place? As far as I am aware, everyone in this place is united in believing in the rule of law, but what does the rule of law do? Predominantly, it protects the weak and not the strong. If there were no law, the strong would always get their way, by force if necessary. The weak are defended by the law. It provides the only way in which they can seek any redress, and Lord Leveson’s report—certainly in terms of its advocacy of a new method of dealing with the press—is empowering to those who currently cannot obtain the justice that they deserve.
Given what the rule of law does, it is no surprise that the strong—in the shape of the press barons, media moguls or whatever we wish to call them—are demanding that there should not be a law, because they know that it will curb their power. I do not mean their power to observe and comment as they see fit; no one is talking about a commissar to sanction every single item that goes into a national or a local paper. We are talking about regulating the way in which those people conduct themselves, and, more particularly, the way in which they treat the other citizens of these islands.
As I said earlier, if there is a dispute between the rich and powerful and the weak and powerless, it is the duty of this House, and certainly of those on this side of the House, to stand up for the latter.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about such an important issue as the future of press regulation. However, I am disappointed that following the publication of the Leveson report, the media have sought to render the debate as an attack on free speech rather than an attempt to ensure that there is proper redress for the innocent victims who have been bullied and abused throughout this whole affair. We owe it to the victims of these scandals to debate Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals principally with them in mind.
In the run-up to the report’s publication, the Deputy Prime Minister stated that
that is, Lord Leveson—
“comes up with proposals which are proportionate and workable, we should implement them.”
I believe that these proposals are proportionate and workable. Similarly, the Prime Minister said that if the Leveson report was “not bonkers”, he would implement it. I also believe that the report is not bonkers, and that it is right for the Government to implement its core principles.
Lord Justice Leveson has suggested tough, independent regulation that will maintain a raucous and vigorous press while at the same time ensuring that the innocent victims of press intrusion have access to justice. This is independent regulation, free of the press and free of the politicians. It is a careful balancing act that can ensure the freedom of the press, and also fair recourse for those who have been wronged by the press.
During the inquiry, the Deputy Prime Minister set out in his written evidence six core principles that would have to apply to a new regulatory system. They were independence from both Government and the media; better protection for journalists acting in the public interest; powers to initiate investigations rather than just complaints; meaningful penalties, whether financial or non-financial; a third-party right of complaint; and membership of all relevant organisations, given that some major news producers have chosen to operate outside the current regime. The question for me is this: do Lord Justice Leveson's proposals encapsulate those six principles? I believe that they do.
Lord Justice Leveson proposes a system of voluntary independent self-regulation overseen by an independent board. The board’s membership would be appointed in a fair, open and transparent way, and would contain a majority of members who are demonstrably independent of the press, with no serving editors. In order to provide sufficient incentives for the press to join the regulator, however, we need to strike a balance between the incentives and disincentives. In order for the incentives to work, it is essential that there is law to underpin the independence of the regulator and also to allow the courts to take membership of the regulator into account when deciding what penalties are required in cases of wrongdoing.
I understand that some Members are wary of using legislation, but Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals do not, and will not, result in state control of the press. Legislation will simply secure the following: continued independence of the media; routine external checks by an independent commissioner, to make sure the regulator or regulators are doing their job properly; and strong incentives for newspapers to sign up to a recognised regulator, including access to a fast, cheap and effective process to resolve disputes and enable victims of press abuse to seek redress. If any newspaper refused to sign up to an approved regulator, it would face higher costs and fewer legal protections. A similar system of statutory incentives is operating in Ireland, which the majority of newspapers—including those who have shunned the Press Complaints Commission here—have signed up to.
Does such a system attack free speech? In my view, it absolutely does not. It simply provides recourse for people who have been treated unfairly by the press. As a Liberal, I firmly believe in a free press that holds the powerful to account and is not subject to political interference, but a free press does not, and must not, mean a press that is free to bully innocent people or abuse grieving families. People who feel they have been mistreated by powerful newspapers need to know there is somebody prepared to stand up for them and investigate their complaints, independent of any interference.
There is a certain irony in the press arguing for free speech. I am one of a number of Greater Manchester MPs who are asked to write opinion columns for the Trinity Mirror-owned Manchester Evening News each Monday. Last week was my slot, and, given that the Leveson report was due to be published, I thought it appropriate to comment on the inquiry and give my opinion. How ironic, then, that the Manchester Evening News refused to print my personal views on press regulation, because it did not think my opinions were appropriate—or, rather, because they were not in line with Trinity Mirror Group’s opinion. So much for the press commitment to free speech!
I am not for one second suggesting the newspaper should be punished. I am merely suggesting that it is rather ironic for a newspaper publisher bleating about free speech not to allow an opinion to be published in its newspaper, in what is supposed to be an opinion piece by an MP from the local area.
Is the proposed system a slippery slope to state regulation? Newspapers are suggesting that a future Government could legislate further and introduce state control. That is a red herring. A future Government could start the process from scratch and introduce state control. However, setting out the independence of the regulator in law actually makes it more difficult to introduce state control, because the independence of the regulator will already be enshrined in law.
Opponents also argue that Leveson’s model of regulation would not have stopped the hacking and the serious criminal behaviour. That is certainly true, but if proper independent regulation had been there in the first place, newspapers would never have built up a culture of invulnerability and an attitude that they could do whatever they wanted. While an independent regulator would not have directly stopped criminality, I believe it would have stopped the culture that resulted in that criminality.
Finally, I return to my first point about the debate being about the innocent victims. If we implement the Leveson recommendations, can we seriously look the victims in the eye? The answer is clearly yes, we can. I fear that without Leveson, we cannot.
I have a registered interest, including in respect of News International. My family are in receipt of damages from News International, and I am also a key witness in a forthcoming trial. I have been a victim, but I will not go through the details tonight, because anything I experienced was as nothing compared with what happened in the very high-profile cases involving missing children and the death of children, and it would be unthinkable to draw any comparison. In any case, I have eschewed making any remarks publicly about what happened to me in order not to rerun what happened, for the sake of the people who were involved and were closest to me.
Suffice it to say, on a slightly lighter note, that in more than 50 cases I succeeded in getting retractions, and I was able to get some limited redress. However, as Lord Leveson pointed out, that was because I could afford to go to law. In most cases, I was unable to get any redress through the Press Complaints Commission. On 20 August 2008 The Guardian published a diary piece which said my lawyers were the fastest in the west and mentioned Sky TV, Mirror Group and News International, all major media organisations with which I have had dealings over the last eight years, and which have had to apologise or cough up in one way or another. None of what happened was edifying, however, and I would not want anybody to go through what I went through.
In some respects, what happened was more to do with morality and decent professional standards than with regulation. As well as all the print newspapers, I had a right time with Channel 4 over More4. Ofcom was equally useless. I had a real problem with the BBC, too, which reported that guns and drugs had been found in my house—the story was not about me at all, of course—and that I had been partying with a high-profile woman all night who then attacked her husband, when in fact I had left her at 6.15 after having had a cup of tea.
All of us in public life face such situations, of course. What we are now trying to do—and what I hope we will be able to do—is achieve something very much better for people who do not have the same opportunity of redress that I had, or who have never stood for public office or put themselves on the line in that way.
I want tonight to address what happened pre-Leveson and where we should go post-Leveson, about which I have not spoken since Thursday afternoon. As has been said, pre-Leveson there was some hyberbole, and many things were said on all sides that upped the ante. The Leveson recommendations are different from what people expected, however, and so much so that as Shami Chakrabarti moves one way, I am moving the other. On hearing her this morning, I was slightly confused about quite where she was, and I was also confused tonight about quite where the Secretary of State was.
I think that those who have taken different sides on this matter are so close together that if we take a step back, we will find a way forward. The Secretary of State has indicated that if the media do not accept in full the Leveson principles in respect of the establishment of the independent regulator—the board—the Government will be prepared to act. I presume that means that the Government will take legal steps. If they are prepared to do that, and as the official Opposition and the minority coalition partner have already indicated that they would be prepared to act, we appear to have, across the coalition and the Opposition, a stated principled position that when media representatives meet the Secretary of State tomorrow, they will have to agree to the full Leveson principles in relation to the new independent regulator.
That brings us not so much to underpinning as to oversight, because not only do we have to establish some way of providing the panel that will appoint the independent regulator, which could perhaps be done through the Commissioner for Public Appointments—a key recommendation—but we then need to translate whatever that panel might be into an oversight recognition body that will actually be able to take the annual report from the independent regulator and assess whether that regulator is standing up to its own laid down code and standards.
I am against that oversight body being Ofcom, partly because it is a regulator. I was trying to work out in my head over the weekend how to ensure that we do not have a regulator of a regulator, because otherwise we will have regulation. Ofcom is a regulator, so let us try to find another mechanism as an oversight and recognition body that is so light touch that not even the most vehement opponent of what Leveson was supposedly going to say could now believe that Leveson’s actual requirements and recommendations take us down the road of the statutory regulation of the press. Clearly, they do not.
There are major issues around data protection which I am sure can be negotiated, with solutions found. If we can get to a point where everyone is agreed on the principles that have been laid down for the independent regulator, which is actually independent, and on a mechanism for getting the membership of that body in place, we can then ensure that we have the oversight that is necessary and that people in this House seek. There would then be a chance that we might have cracked it.
I do not have a final answer; as the child said, “Mother, if God made us, who made God?” I have been struggling with that question ever since I was a Methodist in Sunday school, but we are going to have a find a solution to it, one way or the other. I think it is possible to do so with good will, but there has not been a lot of good will. I have been as careful as I can in what I have written and spoken about, and I am now convinced that we can avoid underpinning through that oversight. However, that will take people sitting down in the next few weeks and being prepared to bury the hatchet and put behind them what was said prior to last Thursday. If we can do that, we will have achieved a great deal, and not on our behalf and not in terms of revenge. Looking back over our shoulder and seeking revenge is not like sending an e-mail; it actually rebounds on us. That is why I have not, in any way, been bitter about what has happened to me, because we have to get on with life, rather than constantly reflect on the past.
At the moment, we live in a emotional, retro society, where we are very much looking over our shoulders to the misdemeanours and catastrophes of the past. I am therefore simply making a plea tonight that we pick up Leveson, deal with those things we can agree on and move on to the future. We will thus retain an independent, vigorous, sometimes extremely aggravating and sometimes unpleasant media, but we will do so with the kind of oversight that will protect people, by their own code and their own lights, from the kind of horrors that have been demonstrated in front of the Leveson inquiry.
I, too, begin by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I receive remuneration for a regular column in PR Week—but hon. Members will realise that that has not had any influence on my opinions on these matters.
A number of hon. Members have alluded to the long history of failure on this issue. I am conscious that I have only 10 minutes in which to speak, but I do wish to reflect on some of that history because the House has not always been very good at learning from the mistakes of the past. This story begins in 1949, with the first royal commission advocating the setting up of a royal commission and saying that Parliament should do something about the issue. Four years later nothing had happened, so the Labour MP C.J. Simmons, a former journalist, introduced a private Member’s Bill, which forced the industry to say that it would now act. In withdrawing his Bill, he said:
“I give warning here and now that if it fails some of us will again have to come forward with a Measure similar to this Bill.”—[Official Report, 8 May 1953; Vol. 515, c. 806.]
In 1962, a second royal commission told the press that it needed to toughen up self-regulation:
“We think that the Press should be given another opportunity itself voluntarily to establish an authoritative General Council…We recommend, however, that the government should specify a time limit after which legislation would be introduced.”
In 1977, there was a third royal commission on the press, after more failure. It said:
“We recommend that the press should be given one final chance to prove that voluntary self-regulation can be made to work.”
Let us fast-forward to 1990 and the Calcutt committee. At the time we were told:
“This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation”.—[Official Report, 21 June 1990; Vol. 174, c. 1126.]
In 1993, the Calcutt review said that the Press Complaints Commission was not effective and recommended a tribunal backed in statute.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend could describe the problems that these great reviews were looking at. We now look back at what was happening in the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and, in particular, the ‘70s, when my father was editing a national newspaper, as great examples of fine newspaper work, so what were these commissions dealing with? Is it not actually unnecessary to keep on quoting from these reports, because there was not a real problem in those days?
Each and every one of those commissions and inquiries was sparked by the abuse of unaccountable power, and I would say that that is what we are seeing today. People sometimes say, “It was a newspaper that exposed phone hacking.” They are right—one newspaper exposed phone hacking—but Lord Leveson is very clear on this: none of the other papers exposed it, and there was almost a conspiracy of silence. He says:
“There were what are now said to be rumours and jokes about the extent to which phone hacking was rife throughout the industry, but (with one sole exception) the press did nothing to investigate itself or to expose conduct which”,
if it had involved anybody else,
“would have been subject to the most intense spotlight that journalists could bring to bear”.
That one exception was Nick Davies from The Guardian, who wrote a story on 9 July 2009 saying that the huge scale of the settlements being paid to some people in respect of phone hacking suggested that a cover-up had taken place. What did the Press Complaints Commission do about it? Did it then think, “Perhaps we should take a second look at this and investigate it”? No, it did not. As Lord Leveson points out, the PCC “condemned the Guardian” for running the story, which is extraordinary. I think that the Leveson report was a good report.
My hon. Friend has criticised the press for the fact that insufficient of them exposed hacking, but can he confirm that the Leveson report—if implemented in full, as he supposes—would not have stopped this sort of hacking, and would not expose it and would not have powers to do so, as Lord Leveson makes absolutely clear? So what is the relevance of my hon. Friend’s argument?
I do not think Lord Leveson does make that clear. The new body that he recommends would have powers of investigation, and that would deal with the culture which led to this criminality.
The central recommendation of Lord Leveson’s report, which we must not lose sight of, is this:
“In order to give effect to the incentives that I have outlined, it is essential”—
not preferable or helpful but essential—
“that there should be legislation to underpin the independent self-regulatory system”.
I agree with Lord Leveson on that, because throughout his inquiry one question simply would not go away: how do we make a reality of independent self-regulation without some kind of underpinning in statute? In other words, “How do you create the incentives to be part of a body that can fine you and deliver stiff penalties against you?” There was no question but that Lord Hunt and Lord Black failed to answer that test. At one point, Lord Black was suggesting that we could perhaps restrict membership of the Press Association and that people who did not sign up to this new body could be denied access to Government briefings or to accreditation for events. That would be very much a closed shop system, which Lord Leveson completely rejects.
The truth is that to make this work we will need some kind of statute, because the contract system outlined by Lord Hunt would be inherently unstable. It was suggested that the contracts should last for no more than five years, but such contracts, which require what the legal profession calls a constant supervision, are very difficult to enforce in a court. After five years, newspapers would walk away from that system and we would be in the same boat as we are in now.
If the industry has failed to come up with an answer that does not require statute after 18 months of thinking about it, what does the Secretary of State think that it will come up with in the next six weeks? I am deeply sceptical that it will come up with an answer.
I agree and I am coming on to that point. We will deal with the culture by having a credible regulator, not by saying that the police should be kicking down the doors of newsrooms as a matter of routine.
Let me tackle some of the myths. The Prime Minister said that by introducing such legislation, we would be crossing a Rubicon. As many other Members have pointed out, that argument is incorrect. We already have a Defamation Bill going through this Parliament that has cross-party support and even the support of the press. If the principle of legislation is in itself inimical to liberty and freedom, where were the freedom fighters when that Bill was going through? It was passed on Second Reading without even a Division.
Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 refers to freedom of speech so, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) pointed out, such a provision has already been accepted. Some say that mentioning the idea of freedom of speech in a Bill compromises it because a future statute could take it away, but we already have it in the Human Rights Act. The US has the first amendment, which is a statute that protects freedom of speech. The Government rejected the same argument when they introduced the Bill that became the European Union Act 2011, when many Government Members said that a sovereignty clause meant losing one’s sovereignty. The argument was not accepted at that time and we should not accept it now.
Some say introducing legislation would be too difficult and far too complicated. I had a look back at the original private Member’s Bill introduced by C. J. Simmons, the Labour MP and journalist, and it is just six pages long. It is very simple and merely sets up a body, which is broadly what we are suggesting now. A couple of weeks ago, we had the Second Reading of the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, which is just 16 pages long and performs a similar function—in fact, it is a more statutory Bill than we would need in this case. I shall be on the Public Bill Committee and I am told that it will be very short. The Defamation Bill, which is very complicated, was no more than 32 pages long. I do not accept that introducing legislation is too difficult.
Some say that such questions are for the birds in the age of the internet and things are difficult because blogs can do whatever they like. I fundamentally disagree with that argument. The changes coming from the internet mean that it is vital for this House to revisit the legislation. Just as some internet news sites, such as The Huffington Post, have already opted to be part of the PCC, if we could get the incentives right under a new body, we could get online credible news organisations wanting to be part of the kitemark system because it would give them protection. By enacting legislation, we would create the incentives that would enable internet-only news sites to take part.
As Lord Leveson points out, we should not encourage a system in which the newspapers engage in a race to the bottom with blogs that have no credibility. If newspapers are to survive, they must carve out a new role for themselves—they need a niche and some additional credibility. Just as people expect of broadcasters a different standard and character of journalism from that which they expect of newspapers, we should reach a situation in which people expect a different character and standard of journalism in newspapers from that which they might get on some blog sites. I do not accept the argument about that, either.
Some say that all we really need is for the police to do their job. It is curious that those who say that the statutory underpinning about which I am talking would lead to a chilling effect on journalism go on effectively to advocate a system that requires the police to kick down the doors of newsrooms, launch dawn raids and arrest journalists almost as a matter of routine. We should not be comfortable with the fact that dozens of journalists will face trial next year. We as a House must recognise that there was a culture in the press that enabled those crimes to take place. We should not collude in the argument that it was just a few journalists and that we should just lock up a few people from The Sun; we must recognise that there was a failure in the culture that we must tackle.
Let me finish by recommending a way forward to those on the Government Front Bench. Lord Leveson says that the ball is now in the politicians’ court. My view is that since any Bill would fundamentally be about freedom of speech, we should have a free vote. To use some of the terminology that I have read so often over the past few weeks, I think that it would be wrong for Parliament to be muzzled or gagged. We should have a free vote. I am conscious that many Members of this House have a strong ideological objection to the idea of any form of statute and they should have the right to have their say in a free vote, but Parliament should also be allowed to reach a rational and measured conclusion on the recommendations of Lord Leveson’s report.
I recommend that we accommodate the Prime Minister’s wish to give the industry six weeks to come up with a proposal. After that six weeks, we should have a free vote in Parliament to decide whether to introduce a Bill in the next Session. That motion should be binding and if Parliament as a whole believes we need some kind of new Bill, we should enact one in the next Session. I must stress that that would not necessarily mean taking forward everything in the Leveson report. I know that there are concerns about Ofcom, so let us see whether we can find a way around that. There are concerns about data protection, so we could exclude some of those elements. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) mentioned concerns about the scope for third party complaints, so perhaps we could limit that scope to systemic problems in newspapers rather than individual stories or concepts. There are ways around all the problems, but I am certain that we need statutory underpinning to make self-regulation work.
It gives me great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) and I commend him for his wise and courageous speech. I suspect that his views, like mine, have been influenced by the evidence he heard as a member of the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions.
I shall confine my remarks to politics—it might sound like a novel idea, but we are politicians and there is a political context to this question—not least because the merits of Lord Leveson’s report have been well expressed by other hon. Members on both sides of the House. In that context, I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that the Government would legislate if she and the Government felt that the press were dragging their feet and not implementing Leveson. That poses the question of whether that would include the underpinning—that is, whether she would be satisfied if the press were implementing Leveson even without the underpinning—and it might be helpful if the Minister who responds could clarify that as well as the time frame the Government are imagining. The hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth mentioned six weeks and that sounds to me like a very sensible time frame, but it would be helpful for all Members if the Government could provide some clarification about the speed with which they expect the press to move and, failing that, when they would expect to introduce legislation.
I think it is assumed that as a politician I carry with me a fair degree of cynicism, but I admit to having felt surprised and disappointed by the Prime Minister’s response last Thursday to Lord Justice Leveson’s report when the ink was hardly dry on it. I was one of many Members who applauded the Prime Minister when he established the Leveson inquiry. I felt reassured by him when he looked into the eyes of the victims and promised to implement it if it was not bonkers. Four days on from publication of the report, I have not heard any explanation from the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State of what it is about the report that they think is bonkers. That can only lead me to question why the Prime Minister set up the inquiry in the first place, only to reject its central recommendation.
No, what my right hon. Friend accepted was the central tenet of Lord Leveson’s recommendations, which was that it was essential that whatever happened had statutory underpinning.
There are only two possible explanations for the Prime Minister’s cursory dismissal of Lord Leveson’s recommendations, having set up that inquiry. One is that he never thought that some sort of statutory underpinning would form part of the learned judge’s recommendations. If that was the case, may I suggest that the Prime Minister was naive, ill-informed or both? It was perfectly clear to anybody following the evidence of the inquiry, particularly that of the victims and expert witnesses, and from the questions that Lord Leveson posed to the industry, that some sort of statutory underwriting, underpinning or oversight—whatever one wants to call it—of a new independent regulatory body was the very likely outcome.
The only other explanation and, I am afraid, in my view the more probable one is that the Prime Minister has been persuaded by representatives of the press—in another example of the very problem that the Leveson report also addresses—that there should be no statutory underpinning, and that the Prime Minister has taken the view that he would rather put up with a few short-lived howls of dismay from the victims and others than with the daily and unforgiving hostility of the newspapers from now until polling day. If that is the case, it is very depressing and exactly what happened after all the previous inquiries into press standards and regulation.
The press have appealed time and again for one more chance, for more time to put their own house in order. They have strung out the process. Most of the politicians and most of the public have lost interest. If this is the calculation made by the Prime Minister and Lord Leveson’s opponents in the press, I believe they are profoundly wrong. First, this time the victims are not going to go away. They are not toe-sucking Ministers, but completely ordinary members of the public—yes, and some celebrities too—whose lives have been trashed. They are numerous, organised and angry, and they enjoy widespread public support.
Secondly, whatever the press do now—we all know that for the next year or so they will behave reasonably well, exactly as they have done after previous inquiries, only to revert sooner or later to their bad old ways—the issue of press standards and regulation is not going to fade from the public eye, because from next year and probably right up until the general election, some of those allegedly responsible for the most egregious abuse will be on criminal trial. Day in and day out we will be reminded by the courts of the behaviour that caused the Prime Minister to establish the inquiry in the first place, and we will be reminded of the repeated failure of the political class to do anything about it. Do the Prime Minister and the Government really want to find themselves in a position where they stand accused by the victims and others of having failed to implement the recommendations of the very inquiry they set up to address these problems?
The Prime Minister may feel that he has had a few supportive headlines and columns in the newspapers since Thursday, but the context may be very different in a year or so. He may think he has been clever now, but he may not look so clever in a year or so. I hope the Secretary of State can persuade the Prime Minister and her sceptical colleagues in the Government to rejoin the consensus. She said that she wanted political consensus, but does she not realise that it was the Prime Minister’s response to Leveson on Thursday that broke the political consensus in the House in support of Leveson’s recommendation of statutory underpinning? I hope she will use her powers of persuasion to bring the Prime Minister back into that political consensus so that we can implement Leveson, and soon.
Is it also possible that the Prime Minister was simply saying that it is far too complicated to rush into something and say that we need to adopt it in its entirety within about two hours of having seen it? If we are to be responsible about this, it needs to be considered very carefully. Might it be possible that rather than playing politics, the Prime Minister was trying to do something statesmanlike and responsible?
I was in the House when the Prime Minister made his statement. He was categorical in his opposition to statutory underpinning. If he had had an open mind, or if he had felt he needed a few more days or weeks to consider the recommendations, he would not have been so categorical in his rejection of the central tenet of what Lord Leveson says will be essential for the new system to work. That is why I question the Prime Minister’s motives.
As the former Prime Minister, John Major, put it in his evidence to Lord Leveson, when he was stressing the importance of all-party support for whatever Lord Leveson’s inquiry recommended,
“if one party breaks off and decides it’s going to seek future favour with powerful proprietors and press barons by opposing it”—
that is, Lord Leveson’s report—
“then it will be very difficult for it to be carried into law . . . So I think there is an especial responsibility on the leaders of the three major parties. . . on this occasion it’s the politicians who are in the last-chance saloon.”
I could not have put it better myself.
I start by paying tribute to Lord Leveson, his staff and those who facilitated the process. The report is a magnificent piece of work, professionally undertaken. I appreciate the words in the report, in which he clearly rules out any wrongdoing by my party and the Murdoch group. He draws a line and rejects the smears on the former Culture Secretary. I raise that right at the beginning, because much of this debate is about redress. Time and again, there were smears on the party of which I am a member and on the former Culture Secretary without redress, yet some days after publication, I have not heard a hint of an apology from the Opposition.
I put on record my deepest respect for the victims of much of the media wrongdoing. They have been extremely dignified. It took great courage to go into that arena, which for many of them is not a normal place of work, and speak publicly.
I am concerned about the idea of creating laws to regulate the free press in this country. I used to be a tutor in communications. The idea of a free press holding politicians to account is a cornerstone of democracy. The idea of us politicians creating a piece of legislation and then regulating ourselves in some way is extremely dangerous and undermines democracy.
I expect the leaders of all parties to attempt to find a solution. As was pointed out earlier, it is strange that having picked up a 2,000-page document—some 1.4 million words—the Leader of the Opposition wholeheartedly accepted all that in one go, within a couple of hours. That is not a considered approach. The Prime Minister did not reject the report outright. He said that he had concerns about it and that he wanted to consider it and to facilitate a debate. The idea that one party has moved out of the debate is as ridiculous as the Leader of the Opposition accepting 1.4 million words in a report that he had acquired a couple of hours before.
It is important that we create a body that holds the press to account and gives full redress to victims of its often disgraceful behaviour. I want to give an example in which I saw first hand some of the behaviour of the media. Back in 2000 I was chair of social services in Bradford. One day I received a phone call saying that the News of the World had been watching a house and had a story in which it had identified individuals, including a grandmother, who were prostituting the children in the house. This was on a Friday and the newspaper wanted a statement from us.
We gave a statement, and then we wanted to know where the children were. The News of the World refused to give us the address on the basis that the article was an exclusive, and if it gave us the address, the exclusive would be lost and other newspapers would get the story, on which it had spent a considerable amount of money and time. I rang up the deputy editor or the acting editor at the time and said, “These are children we’re talking about, and you’re talking about money and profit. I want the address. You don’t have to give it to me—give it to a police officer or whoever, but we want this.” We had some banter about that and I said, “If you don’t, I will ring every newspaper up and tell them you’ve got an exclusive, and that effectively you are allowing the potential continuation of the rape of children just to maintain that exclusive.” Within a short period of time they rang the police and we got the details, but it was an awful situation.
The right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) mentioned professional behaviour. The example I have given was one of immoral and deeply unprofessional behaviour by the individuals concerned, but we cannot legislate for immoral behaviour. What we can do is address the management and challenge it. It is that failure that I think needs to be challenged. However, I do not think that those children would have been found had it not been for the newspaper’s excellent investigative work. My concern is that we could create something that will somehow stifle really good investigative work of the type that helped those children out of that terrible situation. It is the same investigative attitude that addressed the issue of MPs’ expenses.
A few months ago, a political correspondent for national TV collared me and asked how the Leveson inquiry was going down in my constituency. I said, “To be honest, the vast majority of people out there already thought that newspapers were corrupt.” The fact that the newspapers were hacking, bribing people and following dodgy practices was nothing new to them. We might be obsessed with it, but it is not the subject of pub talk, because people already have a very low opinion of newspapers. Indeed, the only group of people they have a lower opinion of is us, so the idea that we are going to create a regulatory body to look over the people they already have a low opinion of is a little self-indulgent on our part. That will not give the public confidence. This is about addressing the unprofessional behaviour of newspapers and ensuring that an independent body is in place.
As was said earlier, much legislation has been put in place to deal with that, yet banks are still engaged in corrupt practices. Legislation is already in place to address all the issues that have been raised, whether intrusion, hacking, bribery or the police being too close to journalists. What we have to do is give prosecutors the confidence to pursue those issues, because we politicians have been somewhat concerned about not upsetting the newspapers and have not been using the legislation already in place to pursue those individuals.
If journalists hack phones, they should go to jail. The problem in this instance is not the law, because a two-year sentence is already available, and it can be much higher if the offence amounts to perverting the course of justice. The problem is with securing witnesses, evidence and convictions. Is my hon. Friend disappointed that the Leveson report says so little about how to address the prosecutorial deficit?
To be honest, I am not sure whether that was within the Leveson inquiry’s remit. The party leaders have a responsibility to come together to find some solution that will make this work, and I think that there is a meeting of minds on the vast majority of this, as other Members have said. It will take maturity by the players to find a solution that will make it work.
A few Members have referred to new media. We are addressing this issue, but I think that we are focusing too narrowly on newspapers. As everyone knows, new media, digital media, the internet and other forms of communication will outstrip newspapers. My local newspaper’s website has thousands of hits, possibly more than the number of newspapers it sells, so we are going to see a real change. There are exceptions, but there is very little regulation and few ways of managing or curbing from one country practices that are part of a global phenomenon. We will have to attempt to bring together many nations to address some of those issues. That is where the greater debate is, but we are slightly obsessed with the newspapers.
Finally, on “The Politics Show” yesterday Andrew Neil said that this issue raises the disturbing prospect of former spin doctors, who are known for their ability to sex up the odd document or two, becoming chairs of Ofcom and effectively being appointed by the Government. That is one of my concerns about the regulator and where this will go. The idea that the completely undermined tabloid press will now be orchestrated by Tory or Labour spin doctors who are appointed by Government will not give the public confidence. I want to see massive fines. I want it to be easier for individuals to seek redress and for the people who lie about them and put mistruths out there to be punished. I want an independent body.
Tomorrow is a big day for the newspapers. They should come to the table, because they have been offered the opportunity to make this work. If they fail, I am afraid that they will have damned themselves. Newspapers, both the broadsheets and the tabloids, play a massive part in British society. The tabloids have an important role. They are being given an opportunity to come to the table and they have a responsibility to take it. I do not want statutory legislation to be put in place. I think it would seriously undermine democracy in this country.
I have listened carefully to what hon. Members have said. I have no strongly formed views on what is being proposed that I cannot change in most respects. I listened carefully to my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) and believe that there is room for considerably more compromise than we have seen in the first few days since the Leveson report was published. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) pretty much summed up my approach to the whole business, which is that I would really like us to avoid statutory legislation. My instinct is that the distinction between statutory underpinning and statutory legislation is pretty much angels dancing on the head of a pin, regardless of what learned Members of this House might say.
Confining myself to a narrower matter in the report, one thing that struck me was paragraph 72 of the executive summary, in which Leveson states:
“What would the legislation achieve? Three things. First, it would enshrine, for the first time, a legal duty on the Government to protect the freedom of the press.”
Yesterday’s edition of The Observer referred to that as being much like the first amendment to the US constitution. Of course, it is nothing like it. There is no real comparison. Any party of Government in future could readily change a law. It could scrap it or, more worryingly, tighten it up with a simple whipped majority if it was unhappy with how it stood. The first amendment is set within an entirely different constitutional structure, as changing it would require the support of 75% of the state legislatures and a two-thirds majority, so there is no possibility that a constitutional amendment could be overturned as readily as could a statute underpinning press freedom in this place. Indeed—let us be absolutely honest—there are Members who would say that if what we do now is not to our liking, when we are in government we can do something different.
Therefore, it is no more meaningful to compare such legislation to the first amendment than it is to compare it to anything else; it is simply inaccurate. I was surprised that The Observer, a newspaper for which I otherwise have great respect, published that yesterday, because it over-blows the proposal. I was concerned that Lord Justice Leveson hinted knowingly at the overblown idea that his proposals are like the first amendment, because that has implications for how we sell the idea of a free press to nations abroad. I have had quite a lot of contact with countries—not all of them heinous and hideous non-democracies—where the press and its relationship with government is fairly complex. Press freedom is very fragile in these places.
We have heard from learned Members of this House that statutory underpinning is very different from statutory regulation. The Leveson report said that ultimately the regulation of the regulator would be done by an organisation that is described on its own website as the office of the independent regulator. Of course this is about regulation—the clue is in the name. Whether it was arm’s-length regulation or direct regulation—which Leveson allows for in the case of organisations such as The Spectator, which has said that it would not sign up to the voluntary option—we would have, to all intents and purposes, what people in fragile democracies abroad would see as state regulation.
If this does not sound too grand, it is worth my saying what I think about the nature of freedom and how Leveson, with great respect to him, refers to it. When papers such as The Observer compare his proposals to the first amendment and say that they are about protecting and enshrining the rights of a free press, they make a fundamental mistake. In the UK, we do not have a written constitution. We do not have politicised Supreme Court judges; they are appointed by political leaders because it is acknowledged up front that some judgments will be politically based. In the UK, we can do anything we like provided that it is not illegal or unlawful. If I want to go walking or climbing in Scotland, I have complete freedom, within the constraints of some aspects of criminal law and trespass, to do that. If someone said they were going to pass a piece of legislation to enshrine my right to do it, I would be somewhat sceptical and look at what the imperatives were. In some people’s eyes, it might be perfectly legitimate to legislate to reduce the number of deaths on the hills or to protect the environment. Whatever the circumstances, such legislation would ultimately be directed at making a compromise about my freedom and my access to the hills, because that is what we do when we legislate.
If we choose to legislate where there is no existing legislation on things that we are free to do, as the press is free at the moment, we have to accept a compromise. I believe that Leveson is proposing statutory regulation, however light touch, by Ofcom—again, the clue is in the name—or perhaps another organisation of the great and the good. We hear a great deal about the great and the good being impartial and apolitical. I have big questions about their values and the fact that they do not intervene in what they have themselves decided, but that is a different matter. Fundamentally, if we want a free press and choose to enshrine that freedom in legislation, as Lord Leveson has suggested, then we have to accept a compromise, just as we do when we make any legislation that constrains our freedom to do what we want provided that it is not illegal or unlawful.
It is incredible that we find ourselves rising in Parliament to debate the fundamental issue of press freedom centuries after politicians gave up their role in controlling the press. Obviously, I know why we are here, but none the less it is rather depressing. I appreciate that Lord Justice Leveson is at pains to say that his report does not recommend state regulation, but I sometimes wonder what’s in a name. We should remind ourselves that we are here partly because of actual lawbreaking and some outrageous behaviour by certain members of the press. Understandably, there are innocent victims who want to see changes to ensure that such breaches cannot happen again and that there is proper redress for victims in future, but are we in danger of shifting too far in our response?
Like many others as the media storm was brewing over the past few weeks, I feared that Lord Justice Leveson would recommend nothing short of full-on state regulation of one of this country’s finest traditions—our free press. On first appearance, his recommendations were less draconian than I had feared, and I recognise that they were arrived at after much agonised deliberation over exactly what role, if any, the state should play in regulating the press. Finally, in unveiling his proposals, Lord Justice Leveson placed heavy emphasis on the need for an independent regime and stressed the need to make any new body voluntary but, crucially, with sufficient incentives so that all publications would sign up—so perhaps only technically voluntary.
So far, so good. Let us delve a little deeper into the 1,987 pages, however, and the waters get murkier. For instance, I am still not at all clear about what happens to publications that choose not to sign up to the new body. What would the future hold for them under the proposed new regime? It would be pretty chilling if, despite obeying the laws of the land—and working perfectly acceptably—they were to be bullied and penalised, perhaps to the point of having to close down. It is a very important question, because as much as people talk about the desirability of a new press code and regulatory system backed by statute, I am not sure that we have thought through all the consequences. Obviously, the goal must be to get everyone signed up, but the “What if?” question still remains.
I agree that that must be the fear, although I certainly hope that such a proposal would not come from our party.
Then there is the question of who regulates the new regulatory body and who does the appointing. This is where I really depart from the opinion of Lord Justice Leveson. In my view, it would be ridiculous to make a virtue of keeping politicians away from the controls only to put Ofcom in charge. As the Prime Minister said in his initial response to the report last Thursday, the most senior positions at Ofcom are filled by Government appointment, and it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that the current chief executive is a well-known former Labour party apparatchik. Lord Justice Leveson is rather vague about who appoints to the appointments board. He suggests the possibility of cross-political-party appointments. Surely, again, this would be putting political influence far too close to the centre. My overriding impression is that all roads seem to lead to some kind of political involvement; that is the only logical conclusion that we have been presented with.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that Lord Justice Leveson does not understand that primary legislation can be changed through statutory instrument and believes that it can be changed only through more primary legislation? On the basis of those concerns, I welcome the Prime Minister’s determination not to take this route.
Indeed. The validating process would happen every two years, which means that there could be opportunities to tweak the code at every stage.
Let me turn to the competition that is facing our newspaper industry—the digital media. Last week, my question to the Prime Minister was about a level playing field. Should we not be giving more thought to this as increasing numbers of people get their news from all kinds of social media that are well beyond a regulated code of practice of any sort? It is like the wild west out there. This competition is doing serious damage to our newspaper industry, and readership is falling year on year. Most young people carry their news on their phones and do not feel even the slightest need to stop and buy a newspaper.
My hon. Friend mentions the wild west of the internet and the wrongdoing by many of the national newspapers. She will be aware that in his report Lord Leveson says that regional newspapers are a force for good and blame-free in this whole process. Does she agree that we must be careful not to do anything that is too onerous for regional newspapers, because they are already struggling to survive, and it would be dangerous if we added to that problem?
I certainly agree that local newspapers play an incredibly important part in all our communities, and we do not want to see anything that undermines them at a time when they are struggling to survive. I have to say, however, that that argument equally goes for our national newspapers, because in 10 years’ time there could be hardly any left.
It is extraordinary that Lord Justice Leveson has devoted a mere 12 pages of his enormous report to the impact of the internet on how we get our news. What planet is he living on, dare I ask? As Hugo Rifkind put it in an excellent article in The Times last Friday:
“What matters today is content,”
not who delivers it. Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations might have worked 20 years ago, but we face an altogether different challenge in today’s world.
There must also be concern about the report’s recommendations on journalists and data protection. If we start down a road of restricting journalistic investigations, requiring them to acquire only data that will actually be used in their eventual report and to provide a detailed account of what they expect to find before they even start, many investigations simply will not happen. Equally, we should be wary of removing the protection that journalists currently offer to their sources. This needs far more consideration.
The Prime Minister is right to be cautious before rushing to judgment. Frankly, I am amazed that the leader of the Labour party was so quick to demand that this report be accepted, in his own words, “in its entirety”. The leader of the Liberal Democrats was scarcely more credible. I simply cannot believe that they would have been able to absorb the entire report by the time they spoke in the Chamber last week and master fully not only the specifics, but the likely consequences of the proposals. In my view they both demonstrated an irresponsible, knee-jerk reaction and poor political leadership.
This is a massively complicated report and it requires proper, detailed consideration. Too much haste and getting the response wrong could jeopardise the very underpinning of our democratic freedoms. Those innocent victims of illegal activities by journalists deserve to see change for the better, but we would all be victims if our essential press freedoms were undermined.
There has been a great deal of debate this evening about the rule of law and how it could have held national newspapers to account. I want to talk about what happens when the culture, ethics and standards of the media are used against a community that cannot fight back, which is what happened in Bridgend.
The ethics of the press at their worst impacted on the county borough in which I live. There was intrusion into people’s lives at the most painful and difficult of times. There was a link built between the community of the county borough of Bridgend and suicide, which meant that anyone who lived there was tainted by a threat and a risk of living with suicide. Virtually the first question that young people who went for university or job interviews were asked was, “Are you all right? Are you going to commit suicide if you move away from Bridgend?” People who were considering moving their factories to the county borough said, “I don’t know—our people aren’t very happy about moving to Bridgend. It’s not a very safe place to live.”
The dead were maligned in the most awful way and families who were trying to cope with the sudden grief caused by the death of someone they loved and whom they had no idea was struggling with life suddenly found that person traduced in the most painful and awful way.
The intrusion into people’s lives was such that friends, neighbours and family could not go to talk to those who had lost someone, because there was a mass of press outside their front door. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray) finds it funny, but children who were on their way to school were being stopped and offered sweets for quotes about those who had died.
There was inaccurate reporting—a “suicide death cult” was supposed to have gripped Bridgend. I said to one of the editors who sat on the Press Complaints Commission, “You know that’s a lie. Why are you running with this story?” He replied, “That’s your fault. You didn’t come up with a better line for us and we needed a line to sell the story and the papers.” They knew it was a lie, but they still carried the story.
It was well known that the grief and the trauma caused by that reporting had the potential to have an impact on those involved in the deaths. There was a risk of social contagion and I believe that we saw that effect in Bridgend. The excessive coverage of the methods used by those who died impacted tremendously on my community.
There has been a lot of talk today about the Press Complaints Commission and how weak and ineffective it has been, but, within the bounds of its capability, it served my community well, and I will always say that. It came to Bridgend and met the people. I think it was fairly shocked at the level of anger and at the fact that nobody had even heard of the PCC and did not know that it was an option to go to it. It was shocked at how frustrated the community was that an honest and decent story about the losses they were facing was not being told. What the PCC did—I know that those people affected across Bridgend will be eternally grateful for this—was introduce desist notices, whereby people were able to say, “We do not wish to be contacted.”
A family who had lost a child were among the first people who came to my office. Their child had died some years earlier—not during the time of the so-called cluster in Bridgend—and they told me how, even then, they feared answering telephone calls late at night, because it might be one of the magazines offering them £250 for the story of the death of their child and how it had impacted on their lives. Such intrusion went on and on, but the desist notices stopped it. They would not have had that from Ofcom, because it cannot interfere until after a programme has been broadcast. My community has been devastated by letters from broadcast media that want to tell the story. They have thrown families back to 2007 and 2008 and left them deeply traumatised and fearful of those stories being aired again.
Another area of the PCC that I must commend and that we must not lose is its educational role. It has taken on a huge responsibility by going to schools of journalism and news rooms and talking about the impact of suicide reporting. Whatever regulation comes in, I would not want to lose that educational role.
With the help of the PCC, I, along with eminent professors of suicide studies, met editors to explain to them the impact of their reporting. They admitted that, often, what drove the most excessive reporting was the fact that, to sell their papers, they had to keep hyping the story and making it bigger and more dramatic. The culture, ethics and standards fall apart as a result of that desperate desire to get the extra sale and new story that will make people buy one paper and not another. We have to do something about that, so that honesty and decency return to reporting.
I am concerned about the failure to look at social networking issues. Many of the families saw photographs that they had never seen before of the people they had lost—their family members—when they went out to buy a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. There, on the front page of a national newspaper, was a photograph of their child that had been taken off Facebook. One of the most horrific stories was about the content of one person’s Facebook page. That person was maligned in the most awful way because of fantasy stuff that had been written on their Facebook page. We must do something about the ownership of the contents of Facebook pages, including photographs, so that they cannot be taken and possessed by national newspapers and reproduced.
Websites must be looked at and must be contained. The website of one national newspaper had a section that said, “Click here for slideshow of the dead”. When one clicked on it, the photographs of everyone who had died were shown on a loop. In fairness to the editor, he was horrified when I told him about it and he immediately had it taken down. He had not known about it, as there is often a split between the print editor and whoever edits the online version, and we must ensure that responsibility runs across those areas. Finally, I appreciate that Leveson did not look at YouTube, but there have been some horrific statements and stories in newspapers that have come from it.
I agree with Leveson about the conscience clause. A number of newspaper reporters contacted me privately to tell me that they were appalled at the stories that they were being pressured to write. It was a case of, “Write the story and keep your job.” They wanted an opportunity to opt out of writing those stories.
The Secretary of State, who has left the Chamber, was educated in Bridgend. I hope that when looking at this matter, she remembers the people she grew up with and what they have suffered from unregulated media.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon), who has told harrowing tales from her constituency.
There is agreement across the House that the Press Complaints Commission has failed and that there has to be something better. The dispute is not about whether things should carry on as they are, but about how things should change. Many Members have referred to the failure of the self-regulatory model for the press, but I question that. I do not think that we have a self-regulatory model. The PCC is not a regulator. Lord Leveson addresses that point in the summary of his findings:
“The fundamental problem is that the PCC, despite having held itself out as a regulator, and thereby raising expectations, is not actually a regulator at all. In reality it is a complaints handling body.”
That means that there is still an opportunity to look seriously at what real independent self-regulation would mean. The industry has a window of opportunity to do that and to present it to the House in a credible way.
There is no requirement that all newspapers, even national newspapers, are members of the PCC; it does not have the power to fine people for breaches of its code; and, crucially, as other Members have said, it has no powers of investigation. I believe that that is at the heart of the series of crises that have affected the newspaper industry for far too long. We saw that particularly strongly in the investigation by the Investigation Commissioner, Operation Motorman, which looked at the practices of the press in illegally accessing personal and confidential information, including through phone hacking. That information was published in 2006, with an update report in 2007. It suggested that 305 journalists, from a variety of national newspapers, had been in receipt of information that had been obtained illegally. Nothing was done about that.
That is a very good point which Lord Leveson tries to address in his report. It ends up being a game of no one being responsible. The PCC is not an investigative body, so it stood back and said, “Where’s the beef? Where’s the evidence to prove your allegations?” The Information Commissioner does not have the right to launch any further investigations or prosecutions, so no one was held responsible. That is why the new body has to have the power to seize such a report, go into the relevant organisations and investigate the matter.
There was no lack of information about criminality or information being obtained illegally; the failure was that no one acted on that information. The Information Commissioner’s report was largely ignored, as was the 2010 report by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which also suggested that there was widespread knowledge of illegal practices within the media.
The police knew in 2002 that the News of the World had hacked Milly Dowler’s phone. We know from information that was produced for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in this Parliament that Surrey police discussed that with executives at the News of the World at the time. It was illegal, so why did the police not prosecute them or take action against them? Nothing was done about it. Evidence produced by the Select Committee’s inquiry demonstrates that senior executives and legal managers within News International understood that phone hacking was widespread and not related to a single reporter. Again, nothing was done about it.
The questions that were asked in that case are similar to those asked in the debate between the PCC and the Information Commissioner: “Where is the real evidence? What should we do?” There was no incentive or reason to do anything and there was no external pressure to push for a conclusion. That is why it is crucial to have an independent body with powers of investigation in the media and the power to fine.
I believe that the police got off lightly in the Leveson report. Lord Leveson skirts over the issue in the summary. One part reads a bit like the “Yes Minister” irregular verb game: “I give off-the-record briefings; you leak; he has been prosecuted under the Data Protection Act 1998.” Lord Leveson suggests helpfully that off-the-record briefings should be redefined as “non-reportable” briefings to clear up the distinction. On leaks, he suggests that police officers should perhaps have less access to the police’s computer system. That is woefully inadequate. A number of people raised the concern that if one called the police in certain situations, the News of the World turned up before the police. There was a ready trade in information between them. Lord Leveson does not go into that in anywhere near enough detail.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. May I draw his attention to a very late submission to the Leveson inquiry from Detective Chief Superintendent Surtees, which appeared on the website this week? He states that in July 2009, he argued internally that there was enough intelligence to warrant reopening the investigation into phone hacking. The hon. Gentleman will know that at no point was that raised with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee during its inquiry. That might be something that he and the Committee want to look at.
I will certainly take a close look at that. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point.
There are dangers in the statutory underpinning of regulation. I agree with what the Prime Minister said last week. I have concerns about elements of the Leveson report and would like to see how the media can bring forward plans for a robust system of investigation.
If there is a system of regulation underpinned by Ofcom, the ultimate sanction will be what it always is with Ofcom: the withdrawing of a licence. That is the ultimate sanction that Ofcom has in the broadcast industry, and it has withdrawn the licence of a broadcaster. I think that we would find it difficult to see the chairman of Ofcom, who is appointed by a Secretary of State, or its chief executive being given the power to withdraw the printing rights of a national newspaper. It may be difficult to envisage the circumstances where that might happen, but the idea makes me slightly uncomfortable.
Like the Secretary of State, my professional experience is in the advertising industry, which has what it calls self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Authority. That model is seen as very successful, but it is underpinned by statute. That has not prevented many lobbying organisations from routinely pressing for changes to the advertising code and the practices of the advertising industry. It has not prevented Parliament from deciding to ban certain types of advertising, such as adverts for smoking, because it thinks that the standards being practised by the industry are not sufficient to protect the public. There are lobbying groups that are concerned about the advertising of fast food and about the portrayal of women in advertising. I do not want to get into whether those debates are serious and should be considered, but they are matters on which Parliament may seek to intervene to change the advertising code and the industry’s practices. Lord Leveson raises some concerns about whether, as a result of legislation, there may be similar pressure from Parliament for changes to occur.
In his summary to the report Leveson states that
“consideration should also be given to Code amendments which, while fully protecting freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, would equip that body—”
the new regulator—
“with the power to intervene in cases of allegedly discriminatory reporting, and in so doing reflect the spirit of equalities legislation.”
That could mean that for future or existing legislation there could be a requirement on the regulator to reinterpret the editorial code. As a result of that underpinning by statute we could have a creep of changes to the editorial code and practices—whether it was delivered by Ofcom or a new body—which would put pressures and new obligations on the independent body that currently do not exist.
It is not clear that Lord Leveson understands how far that could go and he gives an example in his report:
“Those representing women’s and minority groups—”
it could apply to a number of groups—
“would be entitled to retort that if the Code as currently worded creates the kind of legalistic difficulties which have just been outlined, then the solution is a straightforward one: simply amend the Code. The force of this point is noted, but it should be considered in depth by any future regulator, rather than by this inquiry.”
That is not desperately helpful; it suggests that although he is creating something, he does not understand the full extent of where it might go or the full consequences of the changes that might be introduced. We should pause to reflect on that as there is some cause for concern about what direction it may ultimately take.
I believe that we should consider the advertising model and its consequences as an example of something that is independent yet underpinned by statute, and the changes that could come from that. Lord Leveson set out in his report some of the concerns about the potential impact of the legislation. The challenge remains for the newspaper industry to come up with a robust model of non-statutory regulation through which it can put its own house in order and demonstrate that it has robustness, the ability to inquire and investigate, and to fine people who fall foul of its code of practice. If it refuses to do that, of course Parliament will have the right to consider what further action should be taken. I am, however, concerned about that being underpinned by Ofcom or any regulator, and its being forced on the industry at that point.
I draw the attention of Members to my declaration of interests, which includes writing a column for The Independent every Saturday, and having received a settlement from the News of the World for the hacking of my phone.
It is perhaps an irony that most members of the public are quite sceptical about everything they read in a newspaper and equally sceptical about anything they hear Members of Parliament saying, so our talking about what has been written in newspapers will probably induce the height of scepticism among ordinary members of the public.
I want to follow on briefly from comments made by the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins). He made some good points, and I entirely agree with his remarks about Lord Justice Leveson’s comments on the police, in which I think he showed himself to be painfully naive. I believe that the paying of police officers for information is routine not only in the Metropolitan police but in many other parts of the country. One has only to look at the number of stories of where the press have turned up before anybody else to see that that can only be because of some tip-off from the police which, I am almost certain, is done not for the public interest but for financial gain.
I also think that Lord Justice Leveson has no power, because of the 1689 provisions, to decide whether anybody had lied to Parliament. I still believe that Mr Yates lied to Parliament in the evidence he gave to two Select Committees, and that when Lord Justice Leveson one day comes to the second part of his inquiry, he will have to address those issues.
I thought the hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe was confused when he seemed to be saying that the Advertising Standards Authority, which has self-regulation that is backed up by statute, was a rather good model. He then seemed to say that he had doubts. It was almost as if he was trying to persuade himself to have doubts about something and, if I am honest, that was rather the feeling I got from the Secretary of State.