Skip to main content

Blagging: Leveson Inquiry

Volume 637: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport if he will make a statement on the allegations of blagging at The Sunday Times and the relevance of these to the Leveson public inquiry.

This morning we saw reports in the media of a potential fraud and data protection breach by a former private investigator. The allegations are of behaviour that appears totally unacceptable and potentially criminal. Investigation is therefore a matter for the police, and the House will understand that there is only so far that I can go in discussing the specific details and allegations.

More broadly, some people have already formed the conclusion that this revelation should require us to change policy on press regulation. Policy, of course, should always be based on all available information. It is worth noting that the activity described apparently stopped around 2010, before the establishment of the Leveson inquiry. Indeed, it was precisely because of such cases that the Leveson inquiry was set up. This sort of behaviour was covered by the terms of reference of that inquiry, and Mr Ford’s activities were raised as part of the inquiry.

As we discussed in the House last week, and again on Monday, there have been three detailed police investigations. A wide range of offences were examined; over 40 people were convicted, and many went to prison. Today’s revelations, if proven, are clearly already covered by the law and appear to be in contravention of section 55 of the Data Protection Act 1998. As described, they would also appear to be in contravention of the new Data Protection Bill that is currently before the House.

What is more, the fact that this activity stopped in 2010 underlines the point that the world has changed. Practices such as these have been investigated. Newspapers today are in a very different position from when the alleged offences took place. That view is in fact strengthened by today’s example, because the behaviour that we have discovered today was from before the Leveson inquiry, and existing law is in place to deal with it. Criminal behaviour should be dealt with by the police and the courts, and anyone who has committed a criminal offence should face the full force of the law.

The future of a vibrant, free and independent press matters to us all. We are committed to protecting it. We want to see the highest standards, and we must face the challenges of today to ensure that Britain has high-quality journalism and high-quality discourse to underpin our democracy for the years to come.

I refer to my entry in the register.

The world has not changed. The “one rogue blagger” defence—it has been uttered from the mouth of the Secretary of State. When he announced last week that he was dropping the Leveson inquiry, the Culture Secretary said he was doing so because the inquiry

“looked into everything in this area, and it was followed by three police investigations…We looked into these things as a society. We had a comprehensive Leveson inquiry.”—[Official Report, 1 March 2018; Vol. 636, c. 974.]

He told us that the matter was closed—there was nothing more to see. Well, overnight, the BBC has reported allegations by another whistleblower, John Ford, who says that he was a blagger for The Sunday Times for 15 years—a newspaper that the Secretary of State did not even mention.

Mr Ford claimed that he obtained private bank and mortgage information about Cabinet members and public figures. He says that his activity for the paper was illegal, intrusive and ultimately wrong. In his evidence to the first half of the public inquiry, Times editor John Witherow, who then edited The Sunday Times, conceded that Ford had worked for the paper, but did not reveal that he had done so for over a decade. Today, The Sunday Times has disputed the new claims.

The second half of the Leveson inquiry could establish where the truth lies. That is what it was set up to do, but the Government are closing down the public inquiry before it has done its work, despite Sir Brian Leveson saying that he fundamentally disagrees with that decision, along with 130,000 concerned citizens who said it should go ahead and whom the Secretary of State has chosen to disregard. He is capitulating to the press barons, who want to use their raw power to close down a national public inquiry. In the light of the new allegations, will he reconsider his decision on the public inquiry into illegality in the press? If not, how will he assure the House and the public that these new allegations of criminal behaviour by The Sunday Times will be fully investigated? Is it not now clear to him that too many questions remain unanswered to justify the decision to break David Cameron’s solemn promise to the victims of press abuse?

I think I covered all those questions in my statement. As I mentioned, not only did the Leveson inquiry have terms of reference that covered this type of allegation, but this person was raised at the Leveson inquiry. As the hon. Gentleman implied, it is of course a matter for the police to follow up any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. He also asked whether we should therefore bring in an inquiry that is backward-looking and bring in rules that would help to undermine further the free press that we need, notably section 40. The answer to both those questions last week was clearly no, and this new evidence, of activity that it appears took place up to 2010—therefore, up to seven years ago—is not a reason to reopen decisions that were taken exactly on the basis that the world has changed. If anything, this evidence demonstrates further how much things have changed.

I was Justice Secretary when we set up the Leveson inquiry and when we promised the second stage of the inquiry, so my right hon. Friend will not be surprised to discover that I share some of Sir Brian Leveson and other people’s disappointment that the second-stage inquiry was postponed. Does my right hon. Friend really think that there is no longer sufficient public interest in new allegations of this kind or in knowing which newspapers were bribing which policemen because it was as long ago as seven years? Does he think that the best newspapers in this country would accept that judgment for a moment if it was applied to any other sector of the economy? We have public inquiries in hand at the moment looking into much older things—allegations of sexual abuse, the haemophilia tragedy, and others—so will he not wait until we have a new allegation that is post-2011 before at least thinking again a bit about his decision?

I respect my right hon. and learned Friend’s view. Indeed, it was an honour to serve with him in government. But the question that faces us is: what is the right thing to do now to ensure that we have high-quality democratic discourse, when the press face such great challenges, and to tackle fake news, deliberate disinformation, clickbait and the impact of the internet, which was hardly covered by this inquiry? We are taking that work forward. As I mentioned in my statement, allegations of behaviour such as this were covered and looked into by the original inquiry, and there were extensive police investigations. If it comes to another police case into these allegations, the existing law is there to cover it.

Clearly these new reports are worrying and only add to the serious concerns that many of us across the House have about the behaviour of the press. Scottish National party Members have always said that individuals should be able to seek redress when they feel they have been the victim of press malpractice, and it benefits every one of us to have a media that is both transparent and accountable.

I repeat that if Leveson 2 is to be set up, the Scottish Government must be consulted and Scotland’s distinct legal system recognised. In those circumstances, we would support efforts to establish a new UK-wide press inquiry. What action, if any, is the Secretary of State proposing to take on these new allegations? Can he guarantee that if an inquiry is established, it would happen only after consultation with the Scottish Government and would take into account and respect Scotland’s distinct legal system?

Of course I respect the constitutional settlement. Action is necessary as a result of these revelations, and it is action for the police into allegations of what appear to be criminal activities.

The Secretary of State is right to say that criminality is a matter for the police, but does he feel that the Information Commissioner, who has the right to investigate breaches of personal data, has all the power she needs? Is he listening to her calls to further strengthen her powers through the Data Protection Bill?

Yes, of course. We have a good working relationship with the Information Commissioner. Her powers are being strengthened by the Data Protection Bill, and I am sure that the level to which and the ways in which they are strengthened will be properly scrutinised as the Bill goes through Committee and further stages.

I urge the Secretary of State to stop trying to hide behind the Leveson inquiry, because the man who was responsible for that inquiry says he fundamentally disagrees with him. In the remarkable letter he wrote to the Secretary of State, he said:

“I have no doubt that there is still a legitimate expectation on behalf of the public and, in particular, the alleged victims of phone hacking and other unlawful conduct, that there will be a full public examination of the circumstances that allowed that behaviour to develop and clear reassurances that nothing of the same scale could occur again”.

That is the point. Of course the police can look into specific instances, but the question Sir Brian is posing is: what was the culture that allowed those practices to happen, and how can we have reassurance that that culture has changed? How can we have that reassurance without a Leveson 2 inquiry?

Not only has there already been a Leveson inquiry into those areas, but the culture has clearly changed, and the fact that these practices ended in 2010 underlines the fact that they are historical. What we now have to address is how we ensure that there is high-quality journalism in the years to come, rather than revisiting the time when the right hon. Gentleman was at the height of his powers.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that revelations of blagging by private investigators employed by newspapers have been known about ever since Operation Motorman and the subsequent report by the Information Commissioner, which was more than 10 years ago and led to prosecutions and convictions? He is absolutely right that newspapers today face real challenges, and it is those that we should be looking into through the inquiry that the Government have set up, rather than revisiting events of a decade ago.

It was a great pleasure to serve in government with my right hon. Friend, who preceded me in this job. He has great wisdom in this area and understands the challenges faced in having a high-quality media with high-quality journalism that must behave appropriately and ensuring that people have redress, such as in the low-cost arbitration system that now exists. He put a lot of work into putting all of that into place, and I pay tribute to him and agree with what he said.

The thing is, we heard time and time again that it was just one rogue reporter and one rogue newspaper, and then that it was just one rogue company. We now learn, because of civil actions that people have had to put their homes in danger to be able to take, and because of revelations last night, that it was very extensive, including The Sunday Times, which thus far has always denied any involvement in this kind of activity. Last week, the Secretary of State said that he hoped there would be improvements to the press complaints system. What improvements would he like to see?

I want the low-cost arbitration system that has been put in place by the Independent Press Standards Organisation to work. At the moment, we have not seen a full case go through it. It has just been put in place, in November, and I want to see it work better. I want to make sure that when wrong decisions are made, there is a proper acknowledgment of and apology for that.

Those who believe in a truly free press should not accept IPSO, and those who do not believe in a truly free press cannot accept it either. In the light of these criminal confessions, which only The Guardian and the BBC reported, does my right hon. Friend agree that implementing section 40 would be more in the spirit of building a country that works for everyone than the current system, whereby only the very rich can challenge the press?

I have a lot of time for my hon. Friend. Making sure the country works for everyone means making sure we have a press that can investigate people and cannot be put off such investigations by the threat of costs, even if everything they report is accurate. Therefore, I think that section 40 is not appropriate, but it is important that we have proper redress through IPSO, which has recently brought in a new system, and, as I said in my previous response, I would like to see that working.

I am sure the hon. Member for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin) will go about his business with an additional glint in his eye and spring in his step as a result of enjoying the approbation of no less a figure than the Secretary of State.

Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as being criminal, the behaviour described by John Ford would be actionable in civil law? If section 40 were enforced, it would be of considerable benefit to any member of the public who was a potential claimant, particularly if the publisher of The Sunday Times were held to be vicariously liable for the criminal and civilly actionable behaviour.

The hon. and learned Lady has demonstrated just how much this is a matter for the courts and potentially criminal. She raises the issue of civil action. That is how in this country we deal with misdoing such as this that is potentially criminal.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that if the allegations published are true, they would be criminal acts and could be prosecuted today, without any recourse to either Leveson 2 or indeed any other inquiry? If there is a concern about access to funds, might Mr Mosley and his supporters fund such an action?

Certainly the allegations we have read about are potentially criminal, and dealing with that is a matter not for Ministers but, rightly, for the police.

Hundreds of thousands of the British people, Lord Leveson and now the revelations from Mr Ford have made it clear that this matter is not closed, which might lead the public to ask: what is there to hide? Why will the Secretary of State not just let Leveson 2 take place, so that he can once and for all put a line under it and show that, as he attests, the world has indeed moved on?

Because I am concentrating on what we need for the future, not on what happened more than seven years ago.

The Sunday Times blagging revelations are deeply disquieting, but they are historical. Can my right hon. Friend assure me and the victims of press intrusion, in particular those who face it in times of bereavement, that the new model of regulation introduced since the Leveson inquiry makes such activities much less likely and that there are proper sanctions in place?

Not only is that what is in place, but it is what must be in place. Ensuring that that happens and that, at the same time, the free press is protected and standards are protected is extremely important.

The Secretary of State tells us that the world has changed. May I remind him that when the Press Council was set up we were assured the world had changed, and then when the Press Complaints Commission was set up we were assured the world had changed? We do not know it has changed; we do not know that this action stopped with the Leveson inquiry. Perhaps the only way we would know was if we had Leveson 2. Will he reconsider having Leveson 2?

The hon. Lady tries to argue that things are not different from seven years ago. The challenges facing the press are different, but the polity is also different. We have legislative changes in the rules for the police—we have a new police code of ethics—and on the press side, we have a wholly new regulator. The idea that things are the same as they were is undermined by the fact that this is historical activity, not recent activity.

A free and independent press, especially local press, is a pillar of our democracy. It is vital that the press adhere to the highest ethical and journalistic standards and that any criminal allegations are fully investigated, and it is also vital that that freedom is preserved and respected. It is a difficult balance to strike, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me that it is exactly that difficult balance that he and his predecessors have consistently sought to strike?

That is right—as well as always facing the challenges that are in front of us now. The idea that we should put at risk hundreds more local newspapers, over and above the 200 that have shut since 2005, is anathema to me, because it is so important that our local press is supported. People who support the implementation of section 40 support ending the ability of the local press to investigate people locally and, ultimately, are undermining those businesses.

If the allegations by John Ford are proved to be true, it means not only that there has been a serious abuse of power by major newspapers for over a decade, but that John Witherow—then the editor of The Sunday Times, and now the editor of The Times—was only partially truthful in his evidence to the Leveson inquiry. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the full truth is finally revealed?

As the hon. Lady knows, if the allegations are to be investigated, that is a matter for the police. They will therefore look into these allegations, and that is the right place for that to happen.

I should declare that among the allegations printed in The Guardian, it is alleged that Mr Ford worked for The Telegraph, my former employer. Is it not itself a demonstration of how much the culture has changed that our newspapers are reporting on these historical allegations and, furthermore, that we have a regulator that provides the low-cost arbitration that would give victims the redress the Opposition claim they need so desperately?

My hon. Friend is spot-on. There is a group of people in this House right now who are interested in the past, and there is a group interested in the future, and I am firmly interested in making sure we have decent, high-quality journalism for the future.

The Father of the House is completely right that the press would not allow other institutions or organisations to be judged against such a low bar. Why is the Secretary of State satisfied that the press are not being judged against the sort of bar that they would judge other people against?

These are allegations of criminal behaviour that are printed in a newspaper—a newspaper that supported the approach we took on Thursday—so they are being printed in the media and discussed in this House. Allegations of criminal behaviour should of course be dealt with properly by the police in the normal way.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that Leveson 2 would not only be very costly and lengthy, but might undermine the freedom of our press, be disproportionate and, given that newspapers’ circulation has been declining while digital media consumption has been increasing, be too narrow?

My hon. Friend is quite right: we have to make sure that we have in place vibrant high-quality journalism and a free press that can hold the powerful to account. Some people may not like that, but it is an incredibly important part of having high-quality political discourse and, ultimately, liberal democracy as we know it. That is what we are focused on.

My hon. Friend mentions the costs, which I had not even come on to. The potential cost of another Leveson inquiry is estimated to be about £5 million. I think that that is money better spent ensuring there is a sustainable future for high-quality journalism.

The Secretary of State says it is not desirable to look at the events of the past because the Department is focusing its efforts on fake news and clickbait. Why can we not do both?

We have already had a full investigation, through Leveson, of what happened. The question now is what we do next.

Not only is the Secretary of State’s fig-leaf excuse that the world has changed wrong, but it ignores the fact that the delay in part 2 was always built into the inquiry to allow police investigations to take place. The Sunday Times revelations show that evidence is there to be investigated. Does not his wilful refusal to allow the inquiry to proceed just make it look as though he and the media have something to hide?

No. The hon. Gentleman says that this morning’s evidence shows that there needs to be further investigation. This is of course why we have the police to investigate and, if necessary, the courts to ensure that justice is done.

The Secretary of State stated at the start that policy must “be based on all available information”, but how can that possibly happen if there is no second stage of the inquiry, as has been recommended, so will he stop contradicting himself and get on with the job?

It is very hard to add anything more to the fact that there will be an investigation if the police deem the allegations of what appears to be criminal behaviour to be criminal behaviour. The point is that that is a matter for the police in this country, not for Ministers.

The Secretary of State talks about these being historical events, but of course the victims of the latest hack found out about it only yesterday, and may not even know about it at the moment, so that is not very historical. Sir Brian Leveson wrote a letter to the Secretary of State saying that matters had not yet been fully considered and that we needed the second part of the inquiry. Why does he think he knows better than Sir Brian Leveson?

I have of course considered all the relevant evidence, including the representations from Sir Brian, and my judgment is that we need to concentrate on making sure we have sustainable, high-quality journalism in the future. The hon. Gentleman says that these matters are current, not historical, but the activities alleged in newspapers and by the BBC this morning are ones that they say ended in 2010, which means they are indeed historical.

Does the Secretary of State not understand why I and my colleagues find it slightly odd that he should decline an inquiry on the basis that these things happened before 2010? By that logic, we would never have had the Iraq inquiry, the child abuse inquiry or the Bloody Sunday inquiry. By definition, inquiries examine events that have happened in the past.

We have had an inquiry that investigated what happened in the past. It cost millions of pounds: a total of £48 million was spent, including on the police investigations. There were three separate police investigations and over 40 convictions. The issue of the gentleman mentioned this morning was raised in the Leveson inquiry. The idea that we need to have a new inquiry is actually undermined by today’s revelations, rather than supported. What matters is that we look forward to making sure that we have high-quality journalism and sustainable business models for it in the future.