With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the Leveson inquiry and its implementation, and the freedom of the press.
Over many centuries in Britain, our press has held the powerful to account and been free to report and investigate without fear or favour. These principles underpin our democracy and are integral to our freedom as a nation. Today, in a world of the internet and clickbait, our press face critical challenges that threaten their livelihood and sustainability, with declining circulations and a changing media landscape. It is in this context that we approach the Leveson inquiry, which was set up seven years ago in 2011 and reported six years ago in 2012 in response to events over a decade ago.
The Leveson inquiry was a diligent and thorough examination of the culture, practices and ethics of our press in response to illegal and improper press intrusion. There were far too many cases of terrible behaviour, and, having met some of the victims, I understand the impact this had.
From the start, I want to thank Sir Brian for his work. The inquiry lasted over a year and heard evidence from more than 300 people, including journalists, editors and victims. Three major police investigations examined a wide range of offences, and more than 40 people were convicted. The inquiry and investigations were comprehensive, and since it was set up the terms of reference for a part 2 of the inquiry have largely been met. There have also been extensive reforms to policing practices and significant changes to press self-regulation.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation has been established and now regulates 95% of national newspapers by circulation. It has taken significant steps to demonstrate its independence as a regulator, and in 2016 Sir Joseph Pilling concluded that IPSO had largely complied with Leveson’s recommendations. There have been further improvements since, and I hope there will be more to come. In November last year, for instance, IPSO introduced a new system of low-cost arbitration. It has processed more than 40,000 complaints in its first three years of operation, and it has ordered multiple front-page corrections or clarifications. Newspapers have also made improvements to their governance frameworks to improve internal controls, standards and compliance, and one regulator, IMPRESS, has been recognised under the royal charter. Extensive reforms to policing practices have been made, too: the College of Policing has published a code of ethics and developed national guidance for police officers on how to engage with the press, and we have legislated in the Policing and Crime Act 2017 to strengthen protections for police whistleblowers.
It is clear that we have seen significant progress from publications, from the police and from the new regulator, and the media landscape today is markedly different from that which Sir Brian looked at in 2011. The way in which we consume news has changed dramatically. Newspaper circulation has fallen by about 30% since the conclusions of the Leveson inquiry, and, although digital circulation is rising, publishers are finding it much harder to generate revenue online. In 2015, for every £100 newspapers lost in print revenue, they gained only £3 in digital revenue.
Our local papers in particular are under severe pressure. Local papers help to bring together local voices and shine a light on important local issues—in communities, in courtrooms, in council chambers—and as we devolve power further to local communities they will become even more important, yet over 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005, including two in my constituency. These are the new challenges.
There are also challenges that were only in their infancy back in 2011. We have seen a dramatic and continued rise in social media, which is largely unregulated, and issues such as clickbait, fake news, malicious disinformation and online abuse threaten high-quality journalism.
The foundation of any successful democracy is a sound basis for democratic discourse. That is under threat from these new forces, and that requires urgent attention. These are today’s challenges and this is where we need to focus, especially as more than £48 million was spent on the police investigations and the inquiry.
During the consultation, 12% of direct respondents were in favour of reopening the Leveson inquiry, with 66% against. We agree and this is the position we set out in the Conservative party manifesto. Sir Brian, whom I thank for his service, agrees that the inquiry should not proceed under the current terms of reference but believes that it should continue in an amended form. We do not believe that reopening this costly and time consuming public inquiry is the right way forward, so considering all the factors that I have outlined to the House today, I have informed Sir Brian that we are formally closing the inquiry. But we will take action to safeguard the lifeblood of our democratic discourse and tackle the challenges that our media face—today, not a decade ago.
During the consultation, we also found serious concerns that section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 would exacerbate the problems the press faces rather than solve them. Respondents were worried that it would impose further financial burdens, especially on the local press. As one high profile figure put it very clearly:
“Newspapers...are already operating in a tough environment. These proposals will make it tougher and add to the risk of self-censorship…The threat of having to pay both sides’ costs—no matter what the challenge—would have the effect of leaving journalists questioning every report that named an individual or included the most innocuous data about them.”
He went on to say that section 40 risks
“damaging the future of a paper that you love”
and that the impact will be to
“make it much more difficult for papers...to survive”.
These are not my words, Mr Speaker, but those of Alastair Campbell talking about the chilling threat of section 40—and if anyone knows about threats to the press it is Alastair Campbell.
Only 7% of direct respondents favoured full commencement of section 40. By contrast, 79% favoured full repeal. We have therefore decided not to commence section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 and to seek repeal at the earliest opportunity. Action is needed, based not on what might have been needed years ago but on what is needed to address today’s problems. Our new digital charter sets out the overarching programme of work to agree norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice. Under the charter, our internet safety strategy is looking at online behaviour and we will firmly tackle the problems of online abuse. Our review of the sustainability of high-quality journalism will address concerns about the impact of the internet on our news and media. It will do this in a forward-looking way, so we can respond to the challenges of today, not the challenges of yesterday.
The future of a vibrant press matters to us all. There has been a huge public response to our consultation and I want to thank every one of the 174,000 respondents as well as all those who signed petitions. We have carefully considered all the evidence we received. We have consulted widely, with regulators, publications and victims of press intrusion. The world has changed since the Leveson inquiry was established in 2011. Since then, we have seen a seismic change in the media landscape. The work of the inquiry and the reforms since have had a huge impact on public life. We thank Sir Brian for lending his dedication and expertise to the undertaking of this inquiry.
At national and local levels, a press that can hold the powerful to account remains an essential component of our democracy. We need high-quality journalism to thrive in the new digital world. We seek a press and a media that are robust and independently regulated and that report without fear or favour. The steps I have set out today will help give Britain a vibrant, independent and free press that holds the powerful to account and rises to the challenges of our times. I commend the statement to the House.
As I have said through you before, Mr Speaker, timing is everything in politics. If I am looking a little breathless and fatigued this morning, it is because I have been carrying a heavy load in the past hour, lifting weights in the gym and visualising Paul Dacre. For the increasing number of colleagues who do not read the Daily Mail any more, I refer them to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I shall take the Mosley issue head on. If I had thought for one moment that he held the views contained in that leaflet of 57 years ago, I would not have given him the time of day. He is, however, a man who, in the face of great family tragedy and overwhelming media intimidation, chose to use his limited resources to support the weak against the strong.
On this issue, I would like to thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement, not just in the last half hour but over and over again, year after year. This announcement, conveniently timed to be buried under a flurry of snow, is a disappointment, a breach of trust and a bitter blow to the victims of press intrusion, but it is not in any way a surprise. We now know for certain what we have suspected all the time. When a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, joined the other party leaders to say that he would keep his promises to the victims of phone hacking, he and his party were acting not out of conviction but out of weakness. For a brief period of time, and for the first time ever, our political parties had more to gain politically by standing up to the tabloid media than by bowing down to them. When every Conservative MP who was then in Parliament backed this policy, including the current Prime Minister and the present Secretary of State, they did not really mean it. They were waiting for the wind to change and for the fuss to die down. They were waiting for a time when they could, as quietly as possible, break their promises, and today that time has finally come.
We already knew what the Conservatives really thought, when successive Secretaries of State refused to implement section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, the part of the Leveson system that would provide access to justice for ordinary citizens while offering protection to journalists and newspapers that signed up to any Leveson-compliant self-regulatory body. The papers, absurdly, caricatured it as state regulation, and pointed instead to the independence of their alternative, non-Leveson-compliant regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation. The Government were too scared to make the case for their own policy, and finally, today, they are formally capitulating.
The Government are also capitulating on the question of whether to complete the investigation into how phone hacking happened and what is happening now. Underlying the phone hacking scandal, we saw one of the biggest corporate scandals and one of the biggest corporate governance failures of modern times. The Secretary of State says that the terms of reference of Leveson 2 have largely been met, but I do not agree. Here are some of the things that Leveson 2 was supposed to investigate: to inquire into the extent of illegality at News International; to inquire into the way the police investigated allegations relating to News International and other newspaper groups; to inquire into whether the police received corrupt payments and were complicit in suppressing the proper investigation of complaints; and to inquire into the extent of corporate governance and management failures at News International and other organisations. None of those questions has been answered, and by betraying the victims of phone hacking in this statement today, the Secretary of State is trying to ensure that they never will be. I ask him this question: if it is revealed that the criminality that took place at the News of the World extended to other newspapers, will he reconsider his position?
The last thing the Murdoch empire, the Rothermere empire, the Barclay brothers’ empire or the Mirror Group wanted was an inquiry into their dirty laundry, with powers under the Inquiries Act 2005 to obtain documents and compel witnesses to appear in public. The last thing any of the newspapers wanted was more attention being paid to their methods at a time when it may well be revealed very soon that other papers, not necessarily the ones at the centre of the scandal in 2011, were also involved in criminality. They have been lobbying hard for today’s outcome. They will give the Secretary of State—a man who enjoys favourable headlines—plaudits in tomorrow’s leader columns. We already know that Paul Dacre, Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay brothers approve of his statement—after all, they helped to write it. The Secretary of State could have chosen to do the right thing, but instead he chose not to stand up to the tabloid-style newspapers that are propping up the Prime Minister and this Government, and that could pull the rug from under them whenever they choose.
Let me close with the words of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, to the Leveson inquiry in June 2012:
“I will never forget meeting with the Dowler family in Downing Street to run through the terms of this Inquiry with them and to hear what they had been through and how it had redoubled, trebled the pain and agony they’d been through over losing Milly. I’ll never forget that, and that’s the test of all this. It’s not ‘do the politicians or the press feel happy with what we get?’ It’s ‘are we really protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves by this process?’ That’s what the test is.”
The Secretary of State will prosper politically from his statement today, but he has failed that test.
The case of the victims of press intrusion is, of course, an incredibly important consideration when making these judgments, but I make the judgments on the basis not of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, but of the national interest. The issues faced by the victims have been looked into, in the inquiry and in the three police investigations. The issues for the future of our media include this, but are much broader than it.
The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about the future of our media, but the Opposition’s proposals would lead to a press that is fettered and not free. We do not love every story that is written about us in the press, but the idea that the solution lies in shackling our free press with the punitive costs of any complainant is completely wrong. We all know where he is coming from on the issue of press freedom, because he is tied up with its opponents. Democratic countries face huge challenges in making sure that we have robust but fair discussions in our public life, and the approach proposed by the Opposition would make that even harder.
The hon. Gentleman talks about keeping promises. We are keeping promises that were made to our constituents, who elected us on a manifesto commitment to support a free press. He talks about the need to look into the past, but there have been investigations and inquiries costing many millions of pounds. My judgment is that it would be neither proportionate nor in the national interest to follow that with millions of pounds more.
The message should go out loud and clear from this House that we support every single local newspaper in this country, and that we support these publications, big or small. That is why we are proposing real and meaningful solutions for a vibrant, free and independent press, and we will face up to the challenges that we see before us today. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will come around to supporting us in that to ensure that we have a strong, democratic discourse over the years and decades to come.
The Secretary of State’s predecessor promised the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that we would receive a full response to our submission to the Government’s consultation on press regulation, but we have yet to receive it. Can he give me an assurance that we will receive a full response in good time for his appearance before us on 14 March?
Yes, of course. Not only have I made this statement today, but I will also be publishing a full response to the consultation, with full details—I will place a copy in the Library. I look forward to coming before the Select Committee to discuss this question narrowly, and also to discuss the wider actions we are taking, in which my hon. Friend is playing an important part, to make sure that we have a sound basis for political discourse in this country.
I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement. I wrote to him on 22 February seeking an update on progress with the inquiry and asking if and when it would be implemented. I am pleased he has come to the Dispatch Box today at least to clarify that.
The Secretary of State will also be aware that the Scottish National party is absolutely committed to ensuring that the practices that led to Leveson in the first place do not happen again. Our position has always been that, should a UK-wide part 2 of Leveson go ahead, it must take into account the distinct legal context in Scotland.
We firmly believe that all individuals should have a right to redress when they feel that they have been a victim of malpractice. However, the Scottish Government have absolutely no plans to introduce statutory incentives for the press in Scotland to sign up to a state-approved regulator. Press regulation and the operation of the civil courts are areas that are clearly within the devolved competence of the Scottish Parliament, so can the Secretary of State assure us that he will respect the devolution settlement and the independence of the Scottish legal system? Does he agree that, by not doing so, he would set a dangerous precedent in determining the ability of the Scottish Parliament to take decisions in devolved areas?
I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. It is, of course, part of the devolution settlement that these issues are dealt with in Scotland. I of course respect the separate and distinct legal system in this area. He asks whether we will respect that in future, and he knows as well as I do that amendments have been made to the Data Protection Bill in the other place—that Bill will have its Second Reading in this House on Monday—that, with respect to data protection only, require a Leveson 2-type inquiry and the commencement of section 40 on a UK-wide basis. I look forward to discussing with the hon. Gentleman how we can make sure that we have the respect we need for the devolution settlement and for the Scottish press. The single best way that we can deal with the problem he rightly raises is by disposing of those amendments in their entirety.
I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Does he agree that, now more than ever, newspapers play a vital role in holding both the Government and the Opposition to account? He is absolutely right that, rather than looking backwards at the events of 10 years ago and adding to the costs of local newspapers, we should be supporting newspapers in meeting the challenges of the internet giants.
I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend, not least because, as he points out, one of the jobs of a Secretary of State is to look forward and consider how to solve the problems of today. The problems of local newspapers are not a marginal or side issue. More than 200 local papers have closed in the past decade and a bit, including local papers in my patch. I do not want to see that accelerated by the actions of this House, and that is what would happen if we do not take the course of action I have proposed today.
Having spent many hours with the Dowler family, Christopher Jefferies and many others, may I say on behalf of all the victims that many of us will feel that the Secretary of State has shoved another little knife in our heart? In all honesty, we had hoped that the promises were real promises that we would get to the truth—not just the bits and pieces that were able to be dealt with, as Sir Brian said, but the elements that were expressly excluded from the original investigation, particularly the Metropolitan police’s collusion with the press, which could not be looked at at all.
I find it inconceivable that the Secretary of State talks only about the freedom of the press—of course the freedom of the press is important—because to many of us, it is also important that politicians should be able to speak without fear or favour. That means we should no longer be cowed by press barons; we should be able to do what is right for society. I simply ask the Secretary of State why on earth, if everything he has said today is true, did the Government make all those promises in the past, and why did he vote for the legislation?
The world has changed since 2011. The truth is that the rise of the internet means that some of the issues the hon. Gentleman rightly raises about making sure the debate we have is a reasonable one, not one based on abuse and bullying, are much broader. Tackling the problems of today is our task now. Of course there were abuses that were looked into during the inquiry, and they have been looked into by the police in three investigations, with over 40 criminal convictions since. The judgment we have to make is: what is the best thing to do for the future of this country, when the way in which we debate politics and make decisions is under challenge, because of new technology, in a way it has not been for decades if not centuries? Getting those solutions right is mission-critical to our future as a liberal democracy, and that is what we are putting our attention to.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s response to the consultation and to the concerns raised about section 40. Will he outline further its potential impact on the viability of local newspapers and press, such as the Long Eaton and District Chronicle, the Ilkeston Advertiser and Ilkeston Life in my constituency?
My hon. Friend mentions three of her local papers. Given the nature of section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, anybody making a complaint will see the costs assigned to the newspaper and not to the complainant if that newspaper is not a member of a royal charter-approved regulator. That means anybody making any complaint would effectively be able to stop a journalist pursuing a story, as was set out eloquently by Alastair Campbell.
The situation has changed since 2011; nobody then imagined that a self-regulator, IPSO, would come to the fore. It now covers 95% of national newspapers, has a low-cost arbitration system and can require corrections to be put in place. IPSO is not perfect, and I hope it makes further progress, but nobody imagined that it would be there at all. We have a better system than was in place, and it allows for redress and for local newspapers to thrive as much as possible.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statements because I believe that although newspapers often make the life of an elite intolerable, they make complacency impossible. I worry about local newspapers, and I welcome what he said about section 40, because we used to have three newspapers and we now have one, the Harlow Star. We also have the good newspaper internet site “Your Harlow”. What other measures will he put in place to strengthen local newspapers?
This is an important question and we are working hard on what we can do, through this review of the sustainability of the press, with which I hope my right hon. Friend, the Harlow Star and “Your Harlow” will engage, to ensure that we have not just support from the big organisations—whether that is the BBC or some of the big internet giants—but commercial models that work effectively to deliver news, locally and nationally.
I am very disappointed with the Secretary of State’s statement and feel personally let down by his answers to some of the questions. What is in this for the victims of phone hacking and press abuse? What does he say to the Dowler family, the Hillsborough families and the other countless victims of appalling press abuse? There is nothing in this. We had the promises made to them by a Conservative Prime Minister and the legislation that was voted on by the Secretary of State. Times have not changed for the victims, and there is nothing in this for them. What will he say to them?
What I have said and will say to them is that we have to make sure that the UK media and news industry can hold the powerful to account and respond to today’s challenges. That means facing the country as it is now, which includes the stronger press self-regulation that we have, and making sure that we take into account the wider context, which is that there is an undermining of the ability to have an objective and positive political discussion because of the technology that is available. In that context, the proposals that were set out more than five or six years ago would make the challenges harder and worse, rather than better.
I welcome the statement. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the press, both local and national, has a critical role in holding politicians and the powerful to account, any form of state regulation is highly undesirable in a democratic society?
Yes, I do. To be frank, I am concerned by the statements coming out of some parts of our political system that seem to think that state control over newspapers is a good idea.
As a former journalist, I am utterly dismayed by the Secretary of State’s statement. I value the freedom of the press, but does he not see the sad irony in talking about how the press has held the powerful to account and then closing the door on our opportunity to hold the powerful voices of the press to account on behalf of the victims? Those victims were promised the sort of legislation in section 40 that the Secretary of State is now turning away from. The problems faced by local newspapers and the newspaper industry in general are nothing to do with Leveson; they are to do with modern technology. Will the Secretary of State please reconsider thinking about the victims and giving them a chance to raise legitimate concerns under section 40?
I agree with the hon. Lady that there has been a big change because of modern technology. I want to make sure that we have high-quality journalism in future and that that cannot be undermined by any complainant having costs assigned to the newspaper for any complaint. That is no way to organise a system of press regulation. Instead, we have to make sure that we have sustainable business models for high-quality journalists so that, just as the hon. Lady had the opportunity to be a journalist in the past, people have that sort of opportunity in future.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, particularly what he said about section 40. I also agree with what he said about the local press, which are the lifeblood of our communities. Is he aware that Iliffe Media Publishing Ltd has recently bought Lynn News in my constituency? It is bucking the national trend by investing in a new building and in its staff, and it is confident about the future.
I am absolutely delighted to hear that. It is not the national norm to hear that about the local press, but that shows that sustainable business models can be found. I am absolutely delighted about that and want to do everything I can to make sure that there are sustainable business models for high-quality journalism, which includes not adding extra costs on to the local press.
Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson came before a Committee of this House and admitted to committing crimes by bribing police officers—such was the scale of their arrogance; they felt that they were so powerful that they could take on Parliament and they had the Metropolitan police in their pockets. That shows the scale of the position we had reached when the Secretary of State voted in favour of the legislation that he is now trying to repeal. Has he forgotten what happened to the victims? Our duty is to give a voice in this House to people who are weak and vulnerable. As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to stand up for them. The Secretary of State has failed to do that today.
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely powerful case for just how much the Leveson inquiry looked into everything in this area, and it was followed by three police investigations. My central point is this. We looked into these things as a society. We had a comprehensive Leveson inquiry. We spent £48 million of taxpayers’ money doing so. As he said, there were criminal convictions as a result and some people were jailed. My job now as Secretary of State is to look at what the country needs for the future.
Can the Secretary of State reassure me that the new regulatory framework is working well for victims and is much cheaper and easier than those regulations that were in force at the time of Leveson?
Yes, absolutely. I can tell the House, first, that we have a new independent self-regulator, IPSO; secondly, that it has introduced a low-cost arbitration scheme; thirdly, that it requires corrections, including multiple front-page corrections; and that we would like to see further action in strengthening it. What matters to this House in terms of having a free and robust press, whether we like every story or not—frankly, I do not like some of the stories about me, but I still want people to be able to write them—is that people have to write to hold the powerful to account. That means scrutinising this place in the robust way that the press does.
How many of the victims’ families have called for a change of Government policy?
We have considered the evidence from right across the board. We have had 174 responses to the consultation and we will be publishing all those details in full. We have taken into account the considerations raised by the victims and the considerations raised by everybody else responding to the consultation.
When journalists are investigating cases, it is vital that they check their facts and do not publish before they have checked their facts. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that redress is available for those people who have been unfairly pilloried? Can he also explain to the House why he is not taking forward Sir Brian’s recommendation to further the investigation, albeit on amended terms?
Of course, accuracy is part of the code against which complaints are considered and, therefore, corrections and apologies can be required by an IPSO-regulated newspaper. On the first point, which is very important, accuracy is core to the redress system. It is critical that we have a regulatory system for the press. It is also critical that it is not a regulatory system that is put in place by politicians, but one that is put in place by the press itself.
Many years ago, I was libelled by a newspaper and took it to court and won. That was the most stressful time in my whole career as a Member of Parliament because you suddenly wake up to the power of the great newspaper, with all its resources and its ability to mount costs and bring pressure on you. That was for a Member of Parliament. Please think, in your liberal democracy, Minister, about what it means for an ordinary person—one of our constituents—to be taken on by something like the Daily Mail—their life traduced and their family ruined, with so little ability to stand up for themselves and their family. Will he think again on this? As far as I can see, if he reads the Daily Mail this week, he will see that not much has happened to change it.
The libel laws are of course a critical guardian in this space, but the low-cost arbitration scheme brought in by IPSO is designed precisely to address that question, and making sure that that works is very important.
I agree with the Minister about section 40 because I have seen the impact that that would have on local papers such as the New Shopper in my constituency. However, I do not agree with some of the personalised attacks upon him. May I bring him back to the second part of the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) about the amended terms of Leveson? Sir Brian Leveson is probably the most distinguished and experienced judge in criminal matters in this country. He identified in detail the issue of criminal collusion between corrupt police officers and corrupt journalists. Anyone who knows the criminal justice system knows that that has not gone away and continues. Absent of Leveson 2 on revised terms, what will the Government do to expose and deal with that?
Of course there have been changes to policing—not least the code of ethics, the national guidance for police officers and the changes in the Policing and Crime Act 2017. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) that I did not address the second part of his question. We are taking forward the need to look at and to ensure that this country has high-quality journalism, but we have to look at that in the full round. Yes, that includes the press, but it also includes online, where a huge amount of news is now consumed. I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about what he thinks needs to be done, but I want to ensure that we address the problems that we still face.
The Democratic Unionist party is listening, but we remain concerned that Northern Ireland newsrooms and papers seem to have got off scot-free in the first inquiry. Will the Secretary of State tell us just how the landscape has changed since Sir Brian initiated the report? In the light of our concerns, where does he think we are now?
There has been a change, not only in the wider media landscape that we have discussed, but in the means of redress available. Self-regulation is much tougher, with the introduction of IPSO and the ability for people to go to arbitration. We now have the means of redress to address problems in the press, and I hope that they will be strengthened.
While we are right to celebrate a free press within our democracy, are we not also right to demand a responsible press? With freedom comes responsibility. On the subject of responsibility, may I invite the Secretary of State to share his thoughts as to whether, in order to ensure a free and open democracy, the responsible thing to do would be for Members to hand back racially tainted money?
My hon. Friend’s second point raises a very important question. I am sure the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson) will be thinking very hard about that now that he has admitted that it was a mistake to take this money. On my hon. Friend’s first point, it is critical that the press and online publications act responsibly and accurately in their reporting.
Will the Secretary of State agree to meet the Dowler family, Christopher Jefferies and the McCanns to explain to them why this Conservative Government are breaking the promise given by a Conservative Prime Minister?
As I said, I have already met some of the victims. I have also already extended an invitation to meet victims and Hacked Off in order to discuss today’s statement and what we are doing.
In my 15 years at The Daily Telegraph, I had a thankfully limited amount to do with the Press Complaints Commission. I reassure the Secretary of State that IPSO is genuinely a profoundly different regulator with far greater powers and far more teeth. Section 40 would have a chilling effect not just on our valued local papers, but on our national papers. The issue that faces local papers today is social media and the changes in technology that I saw the beginnings of over those 15 years. May I say that what the Secretary of State has done today has done more for the freedom of the press in this country and our accountability than the alternative course of action that the Opposition would like to see?
My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on this matter because not only was he a journalist, but he was a journalist of technology, so he understands the impact of technology on journalism in a very personal way. I agree entirely with what he said on the importance of having a press that can report without fear or favour, and that can hold the powerful to account. We sometimes talk in a glib way about holding the powerful to account, but accountability is critical to good decision making. It is only when we have full accountability for our decisions that our feet are held to the fire and we think extremely hard about all the different courses of action available to us.
Sir Brian believes that the inquiry should continue, albeit in a different form. The victims, who were promised as much in person by David Cameron, believed that the inquiry would continue. Those victims have been betrayed today. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us—when was the last time that a Government overruled the wishes of a judge chairing an inquiry?
I do not know the answer to the last point, because I am only looking at this inquiry. What I have to do, and what I have done today, is make a judgment about what the national interest is. I entirely understand the concerns of the victims in this issue. As we have heard from Members on both sides of the House, there have been significant changes. The inquiry was a significant undertaking that led to a year-long look at all these issues and the concerns of the victims, and then there were three police investigations and over 40 convictions. It is not as if this has not been looked into—it has been looked into to the tune of 48 million quid. I therefore have to take the decision today on what is in the national interest of the country as a whole, and that is exactly what I have done.
I welcome the statement on section 40, which would jeopardise the viability of fantastic local papers such as Barrhead News in my constituency. I also associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara). Can the Secretary of State confirm my understanding that Labour’s proposal to enact section 40 now would have serious implications for the relationship between Scotland’s two Governments in a devolved area?
Yes. The amendments that will come before the House in coming months would have very complicated impacts on the devolution settlement that I do not want to go into. I am very happy with the devolution settlement in this area. It is a good settlement, and I look forward to trying to ensure that it is maintained through the passage of the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I will take the point of order now because I think that it appertains to current exchanges.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that passions run high in this debate, but the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), probably inadvertently, accused Government Members—certainly Ministers, I believe—of taking the Murdoch shilling. That is quite a serious allegation of bribery and corruption, I would suggest. May I ask for your guidance on whether it is in order and how the hon. Gentleman might correct it?
A number of interventions are made from a sedentary position that are not always heard by everybody, but if the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) heard that said, and if it was said, the short answer is that it is not in order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) can respond.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am obviously absolutely happy to make it clear that I make no insinuation about bribery or corruption of any hon. Member of this House. All hon. Members are honourable Members. I also bear in mind that when we prayed earlier this morning we said that we should always speak without fear or favour. I am absolutely sure that that is what we would all want to do.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said. I think he did err in the heat of the moment, but I accept what he said, and its spirit, and I am sure that the Secretary of State does too. I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Dorset, who I trust will be content to leave the matter there.