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Press Complaints Commission

Volume 717: debated on Wednesday 3 March 2010


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have regarding the independence and effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission.

My Lords, for the public to have confidence in a system of self-regulation, it must be effective and robust. We welcome the recent report of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and look forward to the Press Complaints Commission implementing its recommendations.

My Lords, the Select Committee of the House of Commons has produced a very thorough and excellent report, which found that the system of self-regulation of the press, as it exists, has failed, especially in the case of the McCanns and of the News of the World hacking events. Will the Government therefore implement as soon as possible the committee’s most important recommendations? It recommended that the commission should be more proactive and not wait to receive complaints before it acts; that it should have a two-thirds lay majority; and, particularly, that it should have the power to fine, which should have the result that the commission becomes somewhat less tolerant of the inaccuracies and excesses of some of the tabloid press.

My Lords, the noble Lord has accurately reflected the main points and recommendations made by the Select Committee in the other place. The Select Committee reported only last week, and the Government will make their response to those important recommendations as soon as possible. There is no doubt that the Select Committee has expressed itself in trenchant terms, while at the same time indicating that it considers self-regulation of the press to be best achieved through the Press Complaints Commission.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Press Complaints Commission, which has made some improvements in recent years, would do itself an enormous favour if it copied the practices of the Advertising Standards Authority and, as the noble Lord suggested in his supplementary question, took a more proactive role in dealing with cases? It might also like to consider how it could recommend to newspapers that they be prepared to be a bit more responsible in the way that they advertise themselves. You never find the name of an editor in a newspaper or on the website, so they surround themselves with a wall of secrecy while feeling free to invade everyone else's privacy.

On the latter point, my Lords, editors pride themselves on being able to open up to the public a range of issues of national moment; when they are the issue of national moment, it is only right that they should be similarly exposed to public scrutiny—and, of course, the Press Complaints Commission has a role to play, in part, in that. Certainly the commission would contend that it does a great deal of good work by stealth—independent sources testify to some of the constructive work it has done in recent years on less well-known and less well-publicised cases. However, as the Select Committee in the other place identified, on several really big issues the Press Complaints Commission has been found wanting. That is why it is so critical of it.

I declare an interest as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. As with any organisation worth its salt, we welcome constructive criticism and take it on board. Indeed, the commission will be meeting shortly to develop its thoughts in response to the report of the media Select Committee. I remind the Minister that the commission recently set up a review of its governance to test its credibility, its proactivity and its strength in light of the need to be independent and effective. I can also reassure the Minister that a record number of people are coming to us, to good effect, including members of the—

My Lords, I paid tribute to the work of the Press Complaints Commission and to the latter points the noble Baroness identified. I am aware of the work being done by the commission in response to the Select Committee report. As I indicated, that report is only one week old; that is why we in government also need to make a measured response. There is no doubt of the strength of several of the recommendations and I am sure the House will expect the Press Complaints Commission to take them very seriously.

My Lords, in considering the Select Committee report, could my noble friend give an indication of how the Government will respond to the point about the commission being more proactive? In particular, could they explore the suggestion, which has been reviewed previously, that it is high time we had more declaration where conflicts of interest arise—for example, where people write financial articles when it is known that they have interests; and where people write political columns when it is known that they have direct family interests? These issues should be brought to the attention of the public. What are the Government’s views on this?

My Lords there is no issue about what is good practice: the better newspapers follow it but some do not. While arguing, as it does, for self-regulation and emphasising its crucial role in a democracy of throwing light upon dark corners, it certainly behoves the press, when it is being challenged, to be open in its responses.

My Lords, bringing the Minister back to the Question, will he be more explicit about the Government’s plans around the independence of the commission? In answering, can he define independence from whom or what?

My Lords, independence is an alternate to government regulation, to which the Government are opposed. They are in favour of independent regulation of the press, a position which the Select Committee of the other place endorses. However, the recommendations also indicate that there should be a greater number of lay members on the commission, where seven out of 17 are editors. We expect the Press Complaints Commission to look seriously at that issue; the Government certainly will.

My Lords, thanks to the Guardian and the Select Committee report, we know how abjectly the Press Complaints Commission failed in dealing with the News of the World hacking case. Does not the Minister find it extraordinary that Mr Andrew Coulson, on whose watch as editor of the News of the World these abuses took place, should now find himself the principal adviser to the man who wants to be our next Prime Minister?

My Lords, it is a week of expressing concern about some appointments in the higher ranks of the Opposition. On the more general issue, the Select Committee in the other place was very concerned about the inadequacy of the Press Complaints Commission in looking into phone tapping. It was also extremely critical of what it regarded as obfuscation and avoidance of declaration by News International. We expect the Press Complaints Commission to learn lessons from the inadequacy in that case.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of any complaint made by the Liberal Democrats to the PCC about the stories of Mr Michael Brown, a convicted fraudster, who has given the Liberal Democrats £2.5 million, which they have still to pay back?

My Lords, I am not aware of any such complaint but that is probably because no one else is either. We might reduce the tension over this issue a little in this place and leave it to the other place to discuss these engagements.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission and the noble Baroness—who has not yet mentioned the salary that she is paid to chair the commission—can be seen every morning in the free, fair and impartial way that the British press conducts itself?

The press is meant to be free, my Lords, and we hope that it is fair but we certainly do not expect it necessarily to be balanced in any individual journal. That is why we have different regulation for television, where we expect a degree of objectivity. We expect the press to be partial. That does not mean that the press ought not to be concerned about journalistic standards, which certainly mean that reports should be as accurate as a journalist can make them.

Apart from replying to the anxieties over so much of the printed media and one television service in this country being owned by people who reside overseas and do not pay UK taxes, could the Minister please respond to the very important point made by my noble friend in his supplementary question? The Select Committee has rightly recommended, at paragraph 575 on page 130, that in cases of a serious breach of the code, heavy fines should be imposed. What is the Government’s specific response to that suggestion?

That is an important consideration but the noble Lord will appreciate the consequences of any fines imposed by the Press Complaints Commission. They could easily lead to legal action. Whether we want a great many of these issues solved through the law courts or by more effective regulation by the Press Complaints Commission is a very interesting point. The noble Lord will forgive me if I say that the Government are not pronouncing on the issue in their response to the Select Committee, until they have looked at it very carefully.