Skip to main content

Telephone Hacking

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will set up an inquiry into telephone hacking in the United Kingdom and how it can be combated.

My Lords, individuals and businesses are responsible for protecting their own data and communications. Mobile phone operators already offer ways of protecting access to voicemail. In addition, the police will investigate unlawful activity and work with the CPS to bring prosecutions where appropriate. The Metropolitan Police are conducting a new investigation of evidence relating to the News of the World and the CPS is conducting a comprehensive assessment of all material in the possession of the MPS. A number of inquiries are, therefore, under way.

Obviously, my Lords, any criminal charges must be disposed of first, but is it not the case that we now know that the victims of phone hacking include members of the Royal Family, a former Prime Minister, a former Deputy Prime Minister, several serving Members of Parliament and many others? Is not this kind of organised intrusion entirely indefensible? While it may be true that, for some unaccountable reason, parts of the press do not seem to be very keen on an inquiry, there is in reality no other way of discovering the extent of the abuse or what can be done to prevent it.

My Lords, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers announced on 9 February that she recognises that she faces,

“clearly a major task with a considerable amount of work to be done which will take a significant amount of time and resources”.

I understand that she has met a number of those whose names have appeared in the investigation, including Members of this House, and that she will continue to work on that. Perhaps I should also mention that the Press Complaints Commission has set up its own phone-hacking inquiry.

Does the noble Lord recognise that this phone hacking—a criminal act—has undermined the public’s trust not only in the Murdoch press but in the Metropolitan Police? Senior officers and the commissioner attended private social functions given by Murdoch at the time of the investigation. Is that not unacceptable? Is he aware that the Murdoch defence of a rogue reporter was exposed by the production of e-mails by the Murdoch press that were not made available to the original inquiry, causing further inquiries by the Metropolitan Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and, my God, now even the Press Complaints Commission? God knows what will happen to that one. Therefore, can the Minister assure this House that no consideration will be given to the BSkyB application by the Murdoch press until the results of these inquiries are known?

My Lords, I am answering this Question for the Home Office; that question strays rather a long way towards the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I stress simply that the specialist crimes unit of the Metropolitan Police, which is conducting the new inquiry, is a different unit from the previous one. I understand that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers has met the noble Lord, Lord Prescott. This is intended to be a very thorough inquiry, which will also include relations between the Metropolitan Police and the press.

My Lords, my first question for the Minister is more of a riddle than a question, so I do not expect him to answer: which came first, the scoop or the journalist? Speaking as someone who has been a journalist, trained by the BBC, I know that the means are as important as the ends. Is my noble friend not very concerned that it has taken five years for this fact to be properly recognised by both proprietors and the police? I hope that I am not being too clever by half, but I end by citing Evelyn Waugh. Has there not been too much of:

“Up to a point, Lord Copper”?

My Lords, this is one of a number of questionable practices used by members of the press in obtaining information. When I spoke to the Information Office yesterday, the information officer told me that blagging is as important a problem as hacking. “Blagging” means receiving information through deception but not necessarily by hacking phones. I will read the relevant clause 10 of the Press Complaints Commission’s Editors’ Code of Practice:

“The press must not seek to obtain or publish material acquired by using hidden cameras or clandestine listening devices; or by intercepting private or mobile telephone calls, messages or emails; or by the unauthorised removal of documents”.

That is very much what the current Press Complaints Commission inquiry, which has a majority of lay members, intends to look at.

My Lords, will the Minister accept it from me that, when I occupied the Benches on which he now sits, what I dreaded most were Starred Questions? That is because one is answerable for the whole Government, not merely the brief on which the Question rests. Will he give me an assurance that in future all Members on the government Front Bench will abide by that convention?

I stand corrected. I had a member of the DCMS brief me on this Question yesterday. However, moving over to the BSkyB issue is a little wide, even for this Question.

My Lords, with one honourable exception, there is no prospect of our national newspapers investigating the issue of phone hacking. The growing evidence of their own considerable involvement in the practice means that their interest lies not in exposing it but in covering it up. Do the Government believe that the hidden and murky world of private investigators and their techniques—and that of those who employ them and why—now needs further investigation? Would the proposal, which we support, of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on phone hacking not be a useful contribution, in addition to what should be current thorough and comprehensive police investigations?

My Lords, I must remind the noble Lord that the murky relationship between government and the media and between the police and the media is not a new issue that has arisen with this new Government; it has been with us for some years. We all need to look at this. A large number of inquiries and a number of civil actions are under way with regard to the responsibility of the press. This issue will not go away.

My Lords, does not this whole episode demonstrate the need to replace the PCC with a statutory body with effective powers of enforcement against the press?

My Lords, this morning I read the report issued in February of last year by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of another place on exactly this point, in which it makes a number of criticisms of the current situation. However, as I understood the report, it did not go so far as to propose a statutory replacement.

My Lords, have the Government got any further with the investigation of deep packet inspection of all our nation’s e-mails by private firms, which read those e-mails and pull out key words for advertising? The previous Government were investigating this. Have the present Government got any further with that because it is very worrying that all these e-mails are being exposed to that sort of scrutiny?

My Lords, I have not been briefed on that matter, which takes us into some very large issues about the whole question of privacy of e-mails. However, I asked a number of questions about privacy settings on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The technology is taking us further forward in a whole range of areas where questions of privacy and unauthorised access to information continue to move forward. In time we may well need to adjust the law to cope with what technology is providing.