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Press Complaints Commission

Volume 712: debated on Thursday 16 July 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to review the status of the Press Complaints Commission.

My Lords, the Government strongly believe that a press free from statutory intervention is fundamental to our democracy. The Press Complaints Commission is an independent body that receives no public funding. We monitor how well self-regulation is working, but we have no locus to interfere with the status of the PCC.

My Lords, I am sure that most would agree that the Press Complaints Commission must be independent of government, but it has a poor record in making the press more accountable. In 2007, when the News of the World journalist was jailed, it refused to conduct an inquiry into general illegal use of private investigators, despite strong evidence that it was—and, it seems, still is—widespread. It refuses to consider complaints by third parties. It has ruled that it is not concerned with unfairness of reporting. Do the Government not recognise that the PCC has proved to be a paper tiger on crucial issues in the past few years, should be much more robustly independent of Fleet Street, and should be much more effective in protecting the individual from abuse by a very powerful and largely unaccountable press?

My Lords, the Press Complaints Commission is concerned about the events of 2007, and that it may have been misled in the evidence and information that was given to it at that time. It is therefore engaging in a fresh investigation into those matters, as, of course, are the police. In so far as that situation appears to be unsatisfactory, the Press Complaints Commission is taking its responsibilities seriously.

My Lords, where does data protection take precedence over the freedom of information with regards to the Press Complaints Commission?

My Lords, that is a very general question on which at some time I would be happy to give a lecture of at least an hour and a half’s length. The press has a responsibility to act within the framework of its freedoms and to act responsibly. The Press Complaints Commission, an independent body, is set up to monitor that position. Of course, from time to time the Government make representations and comments when weaknesses are identified and when public concern needs to be expressed. But the issue is clear: the Press Complaints Commission finds the situation relating to particular events in 2007 quite unsatisfactory, and it is looking at them further.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Government have been resolute in taking away self-regulation from most professions over the past decade, particularly when investigating complaints against their own members? We have seen the police having those powers removed, and Parliament itself is now recognising that in some areas it is not possible to have public confidence in self-regulation. Is it not time that there was a proper cross-party investigation into a system that would give the public confidence, and that cannot be an industry-led body?

My Lords, there have certainly been plenty of investigations of these issues. The DCMS Select Committee in other place has looked at these matters, and indeed I had the pleasure of serving on the committee when it did so some 10 or 15 years ago. But we are clear that the press is in a specific position in relation to the British public. We see the dangers and the abuses that occur from time to time within the British press, but we ought also to recognise the dangers implicit in a regulated press, which obtains in some other societies.

My Lords, bearing in mind the loss of readership and advertising and the subsequent loss in the number of journalists employed in the industry, is it now in any way well placed to have the proper resources for self-regulation?

My Lords, resources are not the issue. It is a question of the will and judgment of the industry. Of course, what is currently at stake and has occasioned so much public comment is that the Press Complaints Commission may have been misled on these crucial issues in 2007. It may also be that a Select Committee of the House was misled at that time and that police inquiries were not intensive enough. All of those issues were being addressed.

My Lords, I declare an interest; for seven or eight years I was chairman of the Press Complaints Commission and I understand the enthusiasm for all sorts of things. Will the Minister keep the following points very much in mind? First, if a person does not want to complain, there is no basis on which the Press Complaints Commission should investigate a complaint. Many people would much prefer that the complaint is not gone into. Secondly, if a person decides to go to law over the case, there is also no role for the Press Complaints Commission to intervene. Thirdly, a point that is very important and highly relevant here is that if we bring in a statutory system, which appears to be the view of several noble Lords, the truth is that it would be so expensive that the ordinary public would not be able to use it.

My Lords, the points that the noble Lord raises from experience are important. The most important of all is the fact that the Press Complaints Commission acts on complaint. If no complaint comes forward, action is not taken by this body. What is clear, as the noble Lord has indicated, is that at times issues are of such seriousness to the individual concerned that recourse to law takes place and the issues are settled there. I have already indicated that the Government share the public’s great anxiety about the issues that have arisen from the 2007 developments. We are glad that further action is being taken, but we see no case here for the crucial, and very difficult, argument about whether the press should be regulated. At present, the Government are not convinced that this is the case.