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Parliamentary Privilege: Media Reporting

Volume 687: debated on Monday 20 November 2006

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as the Member of another place who introduced a successful Bill to provide, in the case of rape, anonymity for the woman and matching anonymity for the defendant, unless convicted.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what legal protection broadcasters and the written media have in repeating statements made in Parliament which if made elsewhere would be in breach of the law.

My Lords, the media have by statute protection from any criminal proceedings if they publish an extract or abstract from an officially approved record of parliamentary proceedings, which means Hansard or the parliamentary channel, provided that they publish in good faith and without malice. This statutory protection does not apply where the report is based on a journalist’s own note of proceedings, but whether it would be in the public interest to prosecute in such cases would depend on all the circumstances.

My Lords, in thanking the Attorney-General for that response, may I ask him to confirm that there are no plans to seek to restrict or interfere with the parliamentary privilege that we enjoy at both ends of this Parliament? Will he also consider drawing the attention of all the media to the provisions of the current Sexual Offences Act that provide anonymity for the complainant and were put on the statute book to make it less distressing—I do not say easy, but less distressing—for women to come forward with such complaints where the circumstances justify it?

My Lords, I can certainly confirm that there is no intention to seek in any way to interfere with the privileges of this House or of another place. They are a fundamental part of our democracy. As for my noble friend’s second question, I pay credit to the part that he personally played in getting a law introduced to avoid people feeling unwilling to come forward to make complaints because of concerns about publicity. As for informing the media of that law, I am sure that they are very well aware of it already. I do not think that there is any need for me to reinforce that message.

My Lords, why should the trial judge in the original case where there is a conviction for rape have the right to remove anonymity whereas the judge in the Court of Appeal, where the case may be referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, does not have that right? That happened in the Warren Blackwell case and indeed the judge protested during proceedings that she did not have the right to name Shannon Taylor. Why should there not be consistency in the two different legal proceedings?

My Lords, my noble friend draws attention to the terms of the statute passed by Parliament: the trial court and the Court of Appeal both have the ability to remove anonymity if they regard it as necessary to induce the bringing forward of evidence; and the trial judge, though not the Court of Appeal, has the ability to remove the reporting restriction if it is in the public interest to do so—but not just because there is an acquittal. Why Parliament did not apply the same rules to the Court of Appeal, I cannot say.

My Lords, does parliamentary privilege extend to committee proceedings of the House held in public? If so, do the same conditions apply to repetition by the media of statements made by noble Lords in public committee proceedings?

My Lords, is not the justification for parliamentary privilege that it enables Members to raise in either House matters which they judge to be in the public interest without fear of constraint or reprisal by the Executive, the police or the courts? With such privilege must come responsibility. Should we not think very carefully before we accept that the media should in turn have a freedom to report, even using the words of Hansard, things that they would not otherwise be allowed to report, with the dangers that this might lead to trial by media, intrusion into privacy and varieties of injustice?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to say that with privilege comes responsibility—although it is plainly not for a government Minister to comment upon the exercise of privilege by any Member of this House or of another place. As for the media, they have their own responsibilities as well. It seems to me that my noble friend makes an important point in suggesting that those privileges should be applied responsibly.

My Lords, does the Attorney-General agree—I am sure that he will—that the Reynolds v Times case makes it very clear that journalists need to engage responsibly in order to have the benefit of qualified privilege? That is the existing law.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right, although that case is concerned with privilege in relation to defamation. The Question put to me by my noble friend Lord Corbett relates to criminal responsibility deriving from a particular statute.

My Lords, my noble and learned friend has actually admitted—accepted—that there is an inconsistency in the way in which these matters are dealt with in the courts, which led to the naming in Parliament in that case. If he accepts that there is an inconsistency, is he prepared to raise within the Government the whole question of bringing to the House new legislation to deal with this inconsistency which Judge Hallett objected to when she was dealing with the Warren Blackwell conviction?

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised the point—it is there for all to see, including other members of the Government. I am sure that it will be considered by them.