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Press Charter

Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 4 December 2013

It is a privilege to be under your chairmanship, Mr Turner, for this debate on press freedom as I see it. A colleague of mine would like to speak for a short time, so when I conclude, he will ask to speak. I know that others wish to intervene, and I would be very happy to take interventions.

Having been a journalist for some 17 years, this subject is dear to my heart. The principles of free speech and a free press are cornerstones of our democracy. At its best, our press is indeed Churchill’s

“vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen”,

rooting out wrongdoing and holding the powerful to account. At its worst, it is vicious and petty, wounding those it should protect, but for all its faults, I am proud and fortunate to live in a country with a free and often irreverent press. It is a beacon of hope across the globe, which is why I was genuinely surprised when, back in March, 530 hon. Members dared to cross a threshold not crossed for 300 years.

In response to the Leveson inquiry, the Government established a new system of punitive exemplary damages in an amendment to the Crime and Courts Bill. Only 15 Members voted against, myself included, and some of the glorious 15, as The Spectator magazine called us, are here today.

Since then, the press charter has received Royal Assent. The legislation amounts to the toughest regulation of the press in the free world, and it has been greeted with widespread condemnation. In the US, where freedom of the press is enshrined in law under the first amendment, such legislation would be illegal. The New York Times states that the regulations will

“chill free speech and threaten the survival of small publishers and Internet sites.”

Many other countries have joined the chorus of disapproval. A senior delegation of “concerned” publishers and editors from the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers will visit Britain next month. They are coming here, to this island that has stood and fought for freedom for so long, to demand an end to

“continued attacks on press freedoms”.

We are in poor company. Other countries that the team have visited include such bastions of free speech as Ethiopia, Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Mexico, Honduras, Ecuador, Colombia, Guatemala, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. One really could not make it up.

Free speech organisations around the world are asking us to rethink. They fear that the changes set a dangerous precedent for non-democratic regimes, and our Foreign Secretary agrees. Why, then, are we going down this road? True democracies erect a barrier between Government and the press for good reasons, and there is no excuse for dismantling it. It is claimed that the royal charter protects press freedom because it can be changed only by a two-thirds majority in Parliament, but that is illusory. Such a majority rule was enacted in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013, but a simple amendment would allow a future Government to sweep it away at any time with a single-vote majority. Even the two-thirds safeguard is misleading, especially when we consider how an emotive topic such as Syria nearly persuaded the House to take the country to war. Large majorities are not as rare as the charter would have us believe, especially if the cause is deemed to be right, whether it be going to war or cracking down on the press.

Wind the clock back a bit. When Lord Justice Leveson published his report in November 2012, he called for “voluntary, independent self-regulation.” The deal stitched up at 2 am over a pizza by a group of politicians and the celebrity lobby group Hacked Off was far from voluntary, independent or self-regulating. The newspapers and magazines that it covers include the 1,000-plus regional and local papers that were exonerated by the Leveson inquiry, none of which was told that the meeting was taking place. There was no parliamentary scrutiny or consultation with the industry or the public on the terms of the state-sponsored royal charter, even though there are compelling constitutional questions about the imposition of a royal charter on an industry that does not want one. My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) has put those well.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his flattering comments. Can he recall any occasion since the late Stuart period, when the Stuart kings were trying to establish an absolute monarchy, on which a royal charter has been used for the purpose of extending the power of the state? I hope that the Minister will be able to answer that point as well.

My hon. Friend is extremely good on that subject, and I would not begin to question his knowledge. I am sure that what he says is the case, and we would both be grateful if the Minister answered that point in his wind-up.

The legislation also raises questions under human rights laws. The eminent human rights lawyer, Lord Lester, says that the new system may breach article 10 of the European convention on human rights. In a letter to The Times, he wrote:

“There is no need for further state intervention, as proposed by Hacked Off celebrity campaigners. We need a system of independent self-regulation that encourages professional standards and provides effective redress, avoiding unnecessary litigation.”

Instead, what we have is state licensing of the press. That was unthinkable only six years ago, when the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport concluded:

“statutory regulation of the press is a hallmark of authoritarianism and risks undermining democracy.”

I could not have put it better myself.

Unfortunately, much has changed in the past five years. The American satirist H. L. Mencken famously said that in a democracy,

“journalist is to politician as dog is to lamppost.”

Now, with the aid of organisations such as Hacked Off, which is totally unrepresentative, the lamp post has turned on the dog. The motivation of some of my colleagues is dubious, to say the least. The sharpening of axes has been heard for some time. Cash for questions, cash for honours, cash for lobbying, mortgage flipping, duck houses, moats—the list goes on. As for Hacked Off, it simply wants to curb what it calls the “excessive” power of newspapers. I appreciate, as I am sure everyone does in this room and in the country, that there have been examples of appalling behaviour, and victims are understandably angry, but let us not forget what spawned the Leveson inquiry: phone hacking, which is already a criminal offence. As Lord Lester has said, the country’s

“plentiful criminal and civil laws”

already regulate the press.

Far from nothing having happened as a result of Leveson—a complaint that I hear all too often—the repercussions have been profound. The biggest newspaper in the country closed down, and 61 journalists were arrested. Prosecutions are ongoing in a number of courts across the land. Those in favour of the royal charter say that it will not impinge on a free press, but I disagree, as does Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator. He wrote that as soon as Lord Leveson’s recommendations were published, the number of calls he received from Members increased markedly, all suggesting that comments with which they were unhappy should be removed or clarified. That is precisely the chilling effect that I and many others feared and have warned against.

Today, we have reached an impasse. The press is unwilling to sign up to the royal charter. Instead, the newspapers have gathered all the recommendations of the Leveson inquiry into their own set of regulations for the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which I have here.

Does my hon. Friend agree that not a penny of taxpayers’ money should be spent on setting up a recognition panel, which the Secretary of State accepts might be entirely redundant? It would be useful if the Minister set out whether any public money has already been spent on setting that up. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be much better instead to allow the establishment of the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which will be up and running in early 2014 and would enable statutory control of the press to be avoided?

I could not have put it better. My hon. Friend, with his free and independent mind, speaks wisely. We ask the Minister to comment on that point.

Most newspaper editors and publishers are willing to sign up to the IPSO regulations. They are tough, and they are independent of both politicians and the press. For example, no editor would be allowed on the arbitration panel, and potentially crippling financial penalties of up to £1 million could be placed on titles that step out of line. Far from being toothless, the regulations would bring swift and fair redress to those who have been badly treated.

Lord Leveson called for a system that all sides could agree to—I ask hon. Members to note the use of the word “all”—and evidently the royal charter fails in that regard. It seems as though the Government have seen that for themselves. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was reported to have said last month that the press charter could be redundant if newspapers produced an effective system of self-regulation. They have done so, and I have it right here.

Perhaps one day we can create a British Bill of Rights that incorporates freedom of speech and freedom of the press, which would give us the same protection as the American first amendment. Despite the fact that all three parties are agreed on the royal charter, I hope that self-regulation will prevail. It is in all our interests.

My hon. Friend refers to self-regulation; is he aware of any other system of press self-regulation anywhere in the world that is as stringent as the proposals?

My hon. Friend and almost neighbour makes a good point. I shall answer it with what might be a humorous point. After the 15 of us had voted against the Government on that day, I was called within minutes, not by the BBC or any organisation in this country, but by the news desk of the Russian equivalent of the BBC, to ask what I was doing. I find a certain irony in that.

I apologise for missing the very beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution due to the retiming of the debate. I congratulate him on securing it. Does he understand the scepticism there will be among many members of the public due to the previous failures of self-regulation? The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, and we will know how effective this self-regulation is only when it is exercised. That is how the public might develop confidence in it.

The evidence—the cake—is in the IPSO documents, and the public can tuck in whenever they want. As I understand it, when the press signs up to the IPSO regulations, those regulations will be contractual, so the press will have to follow its own rules. What more evidence does the public need than the document that I am holding? If all the papers, and others who sign up, agree to the regulations, which they say they will, we will have gone a long way towards reassuring the public that something has at last been done.

With those comments, I shall close. I hope the Minister is able to comment on the Secretary of State’s remark that if the press gets on with setting up its own regulatory body, the Government will withdraw the royal charter and allow the press to regulate itself, and, most importantly, safeguard freedom of speech and the freedom of the press in this great country of ours—the United Kingdom.

I shall be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) on his speech. I, too, was impressed by what the Secretary of State said. I hope that we will hear the sound of back-pedalling from the Minister when he speaks. There should be no doubt that what the Government propose is state licensing; my hon. Friend made that clear. If the Minister is unwise enough to say anything to the contrary, no one should take too much notice. The legal underpinning by statute—it might be divided between various bits of architecture, but the effect is the same—would mean that those who do not sign up, and they alone and they uniquely, will be exposed to exemplary damages. I had a call from the Russians as well, by the way. I found it as disturbing as my hon. Friend did that they should want to interview me about press freedom.

Karl Popper wrote “The Open Society and its Enemies”, and Sir Edward Boyle, the former Conservative Minister of Education, wrote an essay on that book, in which he said that Popper had first made him realise that of all human rights, the most important was the right to criticise one’s rulers. The problem with what the Government had proposed—I hope that I can say “had”—is that the Government would set the parameters for what was and was not acceptable criticism, and opinions will differ on what is and is not acceptable criticism at any one time.

I have a document from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, commissioned by KPMG, which contains criticisms of Nuclear Management Partners Ltd, its contractor, for very poor leadership and for intervening to a very limited extent. It cost hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money. I know that Government do not want it in the public domain, because the copy that was first sent to me was redacted. I have now got hold of an unredacted copy. The conversation about what should and should not be in the public domain is obviously a permanent one. The idea that the Government should be the arbiter of that is wrong.

We have the expression “a free press” for a reason. The people who are prepared to toy with these new ideas bring to mind the expression of George Orwell, who spoke of

“playing with fire by people who don’t even know that fire is hot.”

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Turner. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) for securing this important debate. I have read his fine contributions to our various debates on press self-regulation, so I knew before the debate about his extensive experience as a journalist. He reminded us that he was a journalist for 17 years, so his remarks and his passion should be taken with the utmost seriousness.

I am not entirely certain—it is not in my brief—how many of my hon. Friends present today were winners of The Spectator parliamentarian of the year award, but I offer those who are present and who have won that award my heartfelt congratulations. Although I was at the beginning of the lunch, I was called away to a meeting, so was not present at see them receive their award. This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate them. In passing, I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). Given that he is going to witness a fellow Minister being beaten up over the next 15 minutes, perhaps this is a respite from the ordeals he has faced at the hands of colleagues over the past 12 months or so.

I will finish my last joke before I get on to serious points. The Spectator has led a robust campaign against the royal charter. I am not one of those MPs who rang The Spectator; I have not rung to complain about its coverage of my activities. I recently took part in one of its discussions on the future of technology companies. I cannot quote exactly from memory, but the blog afterwards said something like, “The Minister said the Government was doing a lot in this area, but none of his examples were convincing.” I give way to my hon. Friend.

Is the Minister aware that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), is very wise when it comes to the question of the freedom of the press?

We have certainly noted the Under-Secretary of State’s comments. Unfortunately, I opened the door to that point by referring to his presence.

I shall take the opportunity provided by the debate to discuss the issues raised about the royal charter. It is more than a year since Lord Justice Leveson—Sir Brian Leveson—published his report, which ran to an astonishing 1,987 pages in length and, I think, 5 lb in weight. The report covered a vast territory. It examined the existing self-regulatory structure of the press, as one of its core themes. It set recommendations—to which the Government responded—for, I would say, a reformed system of independent press self-regulation. Let me take this opportunity to remind the House what those recommendations were.

The key elements of the recommendations in the report can be summarised as follows. The first was maintenance of a vigorous free press. The second was having the maintenance of press self-regulation at the heart of the new system that delivers the key principles set out in the report. The third was to have incentives that encouraged the press to use that self-regulation system and created benefits for those who signed up to and followed it. In addition, an independent recognition body should be able to recognise that a press self-regulator was adhering to the principles.

I am going to ask a horribly cruel question. Has the Minister read the IPSO document? I entirely endorse every word of the speech that he is making— it almost sounds like my speech—so I hope that he will conclude at the end that my colleagues and I are right.

I have not read every word, but I have examined the principles and been briefed on the matter. To pick up on what my hon. Friend says, we can recognise a huge amount of common ground between us.

The independent recognition body should be able to recognise when a press self-regulator is upholding the principles. By adhering to them, the press can take advantage of incentives. It is important to remember that the recognition body is there, first, to recognise the self-regulator, and then to carry out periodic checks every few years to ensure that the self-regulator adheres to the Leveson principles. It will not be, and was never intended to be, involved in the self-regulation of the press.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government are willing legally to disadvantage those who will not sign up to their proposals?

I would put it another way: the Government would incentivise those who join an independent self-regulator that adheres to the Leveson principles.

All three main parties have agreed that the royal charter is the best way to deliver the recognition body that Leveson recommended. I referred earlier to the fact that I have read all the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset. I was able to point out that he had been a journalist for 17 years, because he mentioned it again in this debate, but let me prove that I have read his speeches: I know that the fact that all three main parties have adhered to the idea of a royal charter will not persuade him, as he said in one of his speeches that when the three parties were agreed, it set alarm bells ringing for him.

The Minister, in typical fashion, took the words out of my mouth. I could not have said it better myself.

We are making considerable progress. My hon. Friend has so far said that the speech I am giving could be his, and now he says I am as eloquent as he is.

There has been much concern expressed in the House and in some quarters of the press about the charter damaging press freedom. I recognise that those arguments have been put, but I have to state that the Government do not believe that to be the case. The Government are clear that free speech and freedom of the press are vital; they underpin our democracy. The Government would not seek to implement anything that endangered those fundamental principles. Indeed, the Prime Minister was clear from the outset that he had serious misgivings about taking any action that could infringe free speech and a free press.

I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way so often. The Prime Minister also assured us that there would be no statutory underpinning of the royal charter by law, but there now is. What has changed?

My hon. Friend has taken the words out of my mouth. I was going to say that that is why statutory legislation was avoided and why a royal charter was chosen to establish the recognition function instead. It is important to get the point across that politicians will not be able to meddle with the charter on a whim. There are clear safeguards built into the charter to ensure that it cannot be amended unless a very high, strict bar has been surpassed. Any proposed change must be ratified by a resolution of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as with the unanimous agreement of the board of the recognition panel.

As I said in my speech, what happens if we have a change of Government? We cannot hold future Governments to legislation if they change it. It does not matter whether the fraction is two thirds or whatever it is now; the legislation will be wiped out by one vote, if indeed it was a close call, would it not?

The Government went to great lengths to ensure that the royal charter could not be meddled with at will. The statute states clearly that change would need the unanimous agreement of the recognition panel, and that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords must approve a change. Two thirds of Members must agree to the change, as well as the members of the body itself.

The Minister stated a minute ago that it was not a statute, but a royal charter. Now he says “the statute states”. Does he accept that there is a statutory element?

As I said earlier, the Prime Minister made it very clear that statutory regulation of the press was not a road he would ever go down. The recognition body is not a regulator of the press; that is a really important point to get across. The recognition body comes into being through a royal charter, not through legislation.

I really must make some progress, if my hon. Friend will allow me, because we are coming to the end of the generous time that I have been allocated for responding to the many points that have been put to me—

On a point of order, Mr Turner, can you clarify, for the benefit of those of us who might like to intervene on the Minister later, how long the debate has to run?

I do have plenty of time—that is right—and 1640 obviously refers to the time that the debate closes, rather than to the Stuart period of history referred to earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg).

It is important to stress that the press royal charter cannot simply be changed by Ministers without recourse to Parliament. That is a very important point. All other charters can be changed or dismantled by the Government of the day without any recourse to Parliament at all. In the case of this charter, safeguards have purposefully been put in place to stop any such meddling.

Will the Minister address the question that I posed in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax)? Has public money been used in setting up a recognition panel? If not, will he make a commitment that it will not be, given that even the Secretary of State has admitted that the panel could turn out to be completely redundant?

It is on the record that a degree of public funding will be required to ensure that the recognition panel is established and able to take applications for recognition, but that is time-limited. I cannot confirm exactly whether any public money has been spent so far, so I will write to my hon. Friend. As far as I am aware, none has been spent so far, but I cannot, on the basis of the note I have been passed, absolutely confirm that.

The Minister is being extraordinarily generous in giving way. I would like to suggest a way forward by drawing, I hope, a not-too-tortured parallel. We had a vote, which was referred to in the opening speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), on Syria. If that vote had gone the other way, I doubt whether the chemical weapons would have gone, or whether we would have had the deal with Iran. The Government are now claiming credit for those things having happened, even though they were defeated in a vote. Can the Minister see where I am going with this?

Well, it will become clear. I doubt whether we would have had on offer anything like as tough a regime as that constituted by IPSO without what the Government have done up till now. Would it not be an idea to give it a trial and see whether it works? The Government could then legitimately claim credit for having brought it forth, when otherwise it would not have come forth.

My hon. Friend tempts me, perhaps uncharacteristically, to claim credit where it might not be due, but I recognise the force of the point that he makes. It is important to stress that the independent self-regulation body that is being set up by the press is welcome. It is also important to stress that it is entirely a matter for the press whether they choose to seek recognition for that body. As I have said, the benefits that come through being recognised by the recognition panel are entirely voluntary. I do not think it is any secret, and I am sure that my Secretary of State has put it on the record, that we are delighted with the progress that the press has made in this area.

I recognise the force of the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset has made, but as I say, the charter itself will not play any direct role in regulating the press. It is there simply to recognise and periodically review any independent self-regulator, and when I say “review”, it will not even review the workings of that panel, but will look to see that it still adheres to the principles that are set up—