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The Press: Draft Code Of Conduct

Volume 414: debated on Tuesday 4 November 1980

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2.47 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will delete paragraph 59 of the draft code of conduct on the closed shop which lays down specific factors which newspaper editors have to take into account when deciding whether or not to publish and thereby endangers editorial freedom.

My Lords, while the observance of the provisions of paragraph 59 of the draft code is not mandatory, the Government do not in any case accept that observance of it would endanger editorial freedom. This paragraph is closely based on what was agreed within the newspaper industry—including representatives of newspaper editors—during the talks on a possible Press Charter held under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Pearce, in 1976 and 1977. The comments we have received on the draft code have indicated general support for this section. The draft code emphasises editors' final responsibility for the content of their publication and their freedom to decide on that content.

My Lords, could my noble friend look at this clause again most carefully? Once you start imposing on an editor what he should have regard to in exercising his freedom, you inhibit his freedom. Is it not most unwise to do that at this juncture because of the great importance of our media to the well-being of our democratic process? Would he look at it again? It would seem best just to leave out the three matters he is meant to take into account while exercising his freedom.

My Lords, I certainly agree with my noble friend's remarks on the importance of editorial independence and the importance of a free press to a democratic system. The only place where I part company with my noble friend is in his use of the word "imposed". The code does not impose anything: it simply points to the best general practice.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that this clause is merely an endorsement of the time-honoured right of journalists to negotiate with their editors the quantity of contributed matter that shall appear in their newspapers, and that most editors would be quite happy about it? Does he not think that on subjects of such complexity it would be far better for them to be considered in a full-ranging debate rather than in this manner at Question Time?

My Lords, I do not think there is anything wrong in raising important issues in Question Time. I could not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, about that. However, the kind of experience the noble Lord brings to press questions is respected by us all and it is that kind of experience we have looked for during the consultation period. As I said in my original Answer, we have been pretty pleased with the support we have received.

My Lords, will the noble Lord look again, not merely at paragraph 59 but also at paragraph 56? That says in terms that where an individual journalist finds that his freedom to report is being interfered with by his membership of a trade union his employers are to respect that interference.

My Lords, paragraph 56 is, of course, as the noble Lord said, very important to us and we pay great regard to it. I am not aware of any union-management agreements in national papers and I think, on the whole, that the greatest threat to editorial independence comes not from the sort of issues that we have been raising, but from restrictive practices and inability to move with the times in the industry generally.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of us are not concerned about editors being hamstrung, in the context of the question of the closed shop, because we are sick and tired of editors attacking the trade unions every day of the week?

My Lords, the Government are coming in for a fair amount of stick from editors, but that does not mean to say that we think that they should be disbarred from doing so.

My Lords, does the Minister recall that the Royal Commission on the Press, which reported in 1977, regarded the unfettered discretion of editors, save only in regard to conforming with the general policy of their publication, to be of absolutely fundamental importance to the freedom of the press? Does he also recall that among our recommendations in regard to the closed shop, in the aftermath of the debate on the legislation under the previous Govern- ment, a draft to that effect was proposed to the Government of the day and that it is a matter of great regret that no action was taken by that Government on our recommendations?

My Lords, I am, of course, naturally glad to say that the present Government have succeeded in getting agreement where the previous Government failed, because this is a matter of great importance to all Governments, whatever political complexion they may have.

My Lords, does not the Minister consider that there is something of an anomaly here, in the line that he is taking over this Answer, remembering what happened yesterday on the Broadcasting Bill, when an amendment, which would have enabled educational sections to take account of international situations, was knocked out as being too restrictive?