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Telephone Hacking

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 16 June 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further action they intend to take to prevent telephone hacking by newspapers.

My Lords, phone hacking is unacceptable and against the law. The police must be allowed to probe into all the evidence. The CPS will then assess whether any prosecutions should be brought in accordance with the tests laid down by the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Should Her Majesty’s Government launch another phone-hacking inquiry now, it would risk obstructing these investigations. We shall, in the circumstances, monitor closely all the results and consider whether any further action will be necessary.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. There was a time when there was an attempt to write off phone hacking as the work of one rogue reporter. Does my noble friend recognise that in the last two weeks alone, News Corporation has paid out damages of £100,000 to the actress Sienna Miller and admitted misuse of private information, breach of confidence and harassment? News International has now set up what it calls a £15 million compensation fund for the victims of phone hacking, and evidence has emerged that the News of the World is not the only newspaper involved. Does she agree that all this represents a massive conspiracy against the public which the police and the Press Complaints Commission have been powerless to prevent, and will she give an assurance that once the criminal proceedings are complete—I emphasise, once they are complete—the Government will set up an independent inquiry to find out where the responsibility lies?

My noble friend Lord Fowler is extremely knowledgeable and experienced on this subject. I have read the details that he mentioned, but I need to make it clear from the start that my answers will cover only press regulations and not the criminal aspects. I know that your Lordships are well aware that the criminal aspects of hacking are covered by the Home Office. We do, however, fully understand my noble friend’s request for a further inquiry to be set up after the present cases are resolved. We are witnessing a revolution in the information and communications world, as in technology in general, of such galloping speed that I can only agree with my noble friend that constant monitoring is essential in case further action is needed.

With regard to the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I agree and understand the Minister’s case that she cannot do anything while court proceedings are possible. However, News International, and Rupert Murdoch particularly, have a history of avoiding publicity when there have been bad cases. There was another case of a former editor of the Sun—a very serious sexual assault case in the office. The editor was finally dismissed and large sums of money were paid, but nothing was public because it was hushed up by a conditional agreement in court by News International. There is a major problem about the way in which that group operates. I accept entirely that it has to be after the court case, but there really has to be some sort of inquiry.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, makes an important point about BSkyB and News Corporation. The Secretary of State has to make a quasi-judicial decision about the impact of the proposed merger on media plurality. Going back to his pinpointing regarding one newspaper, it was interesting that in February 2010 the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee published a report on press reporting that included the examination of the phone-hacking episode. It was critical of the News of the World and the police and stated that it did not find it credible that such an activity was limited to just one rogue reporter. However, according to recent press interviews, the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said:

“It really isn’t acceptable to keep pointing the finger at one newspaper when, clearly, the use of unlawful means of investigating was, or is, widespread”.

My Lords, this question is adjacent to a concern about super-injunctions. Is there not now a need to establish some means of deciding what the proper balance is between public interest, freedom of the press and personal privacy?

My noble friend Lord Elton hits right at the centre of this whole argument. The Attorney-General has announced a Joint Committee to look at all aspects of privacy and the use of anonymity injunctions and super-injunctions. We are currently looking at the terms of reference for the committee. To clarify, general injunctions stop the press reporting. With super-injunctions, the press are not allowed to say that they have been gagged, which is very rare.

My Lords, should a committee of inquiry be established, will my noble friend please take on board the need to ensure that it investigates the very close links between senior police officers and senior executives of newspapers? Indeed, it is alleged that during the initial inquiries into the main case that we are discussing today, police officers were entertained by the executives of that newspaper.

My noble friend Lord Ryder brings up a very delicate point about the inquiries. A number of investigations by the police are already under way. There are also several ongoing court cases, two parliamentary committees, and reviews by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Press Complaints Commission. At this stage it is hard to see whether another inquiry would be of any use, but the situation is constantly being monitored.

Does the noble Baroness agree that it is ludicrous to suggest that an editor of a national newspaper was not aware of where the information came from? In the past, as I believe one of my noble friends has mentioned, a journalist was given a custodial sentence for phone tapping. Is not the editor responsible for what goes in the newspaper, and therefore should he not also be given a custodial sentence, as well as, indeed, the proprietor and the board of directors?

I mentioned at the beginning that I was answering for the DCMS, which strays into the Home Office. When it comes to editors, I am afraid that I am unaware of what is happening.

Can my noble friend the Minister indicate why it took five years, from 2006 to 2011, with Rebekah Brooks of Sky having only just been notified, to inform the victims of hacking that they were on Glenn Mulcaire’s list of names and numbers? Can she assure the House that all known victims have now been notified and that in future such victims will be notified as soon as possible?

My Lords, the merger is being investigated on the basis of the effect that it could have on media plurality. As I said, phone-hacking allegations are very serious, but they are a matter for the criminal courts and may take a very long time. It would be impractical and quite wrong to delay a decision for such a long time.