Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of recent allegations about the conduct of the news media and police; and the position of News Corporation within United Kingdom media provision.
My Lords, at the centre of this debate are Mr Murdoch and his media empire. He will go to the Commons next week, so I will start by reporting what he told the Lords Communications Committee when we interviewed him in New York four years ago. Perhaps because he was in his own office, he spoke quite freely about his ambitions. He said that the United Kingdom was “anti-success” and that this had prevented him from expanding further. He said that Sky News would be more popular if it was more like Fox News—not in its political standpoint, I emphasise, but in presentation and format. However, he said, “Nobody at Sky listens to me”.
Most interesting of all were his views on his role as a proprietor. In the case of the Times and the Sunday Times, he said that the law required him to take no part; but with the Sun and the News of the World, he said, he was a traditional proprietor. This meant that an American owner was deciding the position of those newspapers on which party they would support and on big policy issues such as Europe; but it did not mean that the owner exercised daily editorial control. Indeed, he said, if he exercised that, there would not be the degree of celebrity coverage that there was in his tabloids. He added that he did not understand the interest in “Big Brother” contestants and, by implication, in their private lives. He said that was up to his editors.
I think that today, as his empire shows signs of cracking, he might regret that hands-off approach. It has been brought low in part by the preoccupation with private lives and private tragedies, and by the utterly unacceptable means used by one of his newspapers, the News of the World, to avoid the law and intrude into them. I note that today in the Wall Street Journal he states that News Corp has handled the phone hacking scandal “extremely well” and has made only “minor mistakes”. It is not for me to advise Mr Murdoch, but I think that he might find that not to be the most convincing argument when he meets the Select Committee next week—particularly as another head has just rolled at Wapping with the resignation of Rebekah Brooks. This follows the entire tradition of there being a new development in the scandal every few hours. I am sure that by the time I sit down, another development will have occurred.
I will start by saying something about journalism and newspapers. I will say it from the standpoint of someone who was once a journalist and chairman of two regional newspaper groups. The Motion is not an attack on newspapers generally, nor on campaigning journalism. Indeed, we would not be having this debate were it not for the persistence of a number of newspapers and the skill of their investigative reporters: newspapers such as the Guardian, Independent, Financial Times and Evening Standard. We should always understand that newspapers are not and never will be there to give Governments, political parties and politicians an easy time. Nor are they there to allow businesses to trample over the rights of ordinary people. That is why the Sunday Times thalidomide campaign under Harry Evans some time ago was so important.
Nothing I will say is an attack on an independent press carrying out its traditional and irreplaceable function in a democratic state. However, it is an attack on any newspaper using so-called private detectives to hack the phones of the citizens of this country; it is an attack on any newspaper that tries illegally to intrude on the private grief of bereaved families; and it is an attack on those who carry out that trade and on the utter arrogance and callousness of those who authorise and pay for such efforts. I am not attacking good journalism; I am attacking the rotten and the criminal, and the people who do not deserve to be called journalists in the first place.
The test that I would apply to what may flow from the inquiries that have now been set up, and which I very much welcome, is: what is in the interests of the public? There is no doubt that in case after case, the interests of the public and the citizen have been damaged and infringed. It is one of the extraordinary features of the phone hacking scandal that it took so long to agree that a public inquiry was necessary. Obviously, I think of my own experience. Since January, I asked five Questions on the Floor of the House—and on five occasions I was told, more or less politely, to jump in the Thames. My last Question was a PNQ on 5 July, only 10 days ago, when once again the same message was repeated. A few hours later, the whole position changed because of the Milly Dowler case—the contemptible and almost incredible intrusion that took place there. I think we all pay tribute to the Dowler family for the courage that they have shown during this time. It is not much comfort to them, but their case it was that broke the mould.
Let me be clear: the case for an independent inquiry goes back much further than the seven months of 2011. It seems that 18 months ago, the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, considered a judicial inquiry but now complains that he was given official advice not to have one. I seem to remember my old boss saying something about advisers advising and Ministers deciding but, whatever the rights and wrongs may be, we can agree that no inquiry was set up. Even before that, there was a strong case for an independent inquiry. Some may have considered it overwhelming. I remind the House that in 2006, the report of the Information Commissioner came out. It contained some very damning evidence. The Information Commissioner said:
“Yet investigations by my officers and by the police have uncovered evidence of a pervasive and widespread ‘industry’ devoted to the illegal buying and selling of such information … Among the ‘buyers’ are many journalists looking for a story. In one major case investigated by the ICO, the evidence included records of information supplied to 305 named journalists working for a range of newspapers … The ‘suppliers’ almost invariably work within the private investigation industry … Suppliers use two main methods to obtain the information they want: through corruption, or more usually by some form of deception, generally known as ‘blagging’. Blaggers pretend to be someone they are not in order to wheedle out the information”.
I have absolutely no doubt that, had a full inquiry taken place then, we would have found even more much earlier about phone hacking.
Why have Governments—and I do say “Governments”, as it is not one Government—up to now looked the other way, or at least failed to act? I fear that one reason is the impact that such action could have upon them. The traditional advice has been not to take on the man who controls the printing presses, and no man owned more in Britain than Mr Murdoch, who has a newspaper share of almost 40 per cent. The aim of both main parties has been to get his support. Mr Blair famously flew to Australia in search of his support, and my noble friend Lady Thatcher also had the same goal, but at least she expected him to come to her. I say in parenthesis that John Major was one of the few Prime Ministers who did not go courting. I was his party chairman for two eventful years, and I certainly tried a bit of peacekeeping with the Sun. I went down to Wapping to see Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun’s editor, to get the response that the last thing he wanted to do was to meet the Prime Minister, which mirrored exactly the Prime Minister’s view of Mr MacKenzie.
We all know that political leaders, Ministers and shadow Ministers have at times got demeaningly too close to proprietors. We now have an opportunity to put that right and to put clear water between the media and politicians, and I very much hope that we will take it. One of the proposals in the Prime Minister’s Statement on Wednesday is that meetings between Ministers and proprietors, editors and the like should be recorded. I very much welcome that proposal and, if I may respectfully point it out, it was one of the proposals that the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications made in its report in 2008. We reported then on the position, and we highlighted the case of a Member of this House, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, who,
“sought information about the times and dates of Tony Blair’s meetings with Rupert Murdoch and Richard Desmond, but was refused answers for several years. Both Downing Street and the Freedom of Information Officer at the Cabinet Office said that the release of the information would be prejudicial to the effective conduct of public affairs. Lord Avebury was in the process of taking his case to the Information Tribunal when the Cabinet Office chose to release the information the day after Mr Blair resigned”.
That affects Mr Blair and his Government, but I think we can see the attitude going through, frankly, Governments of all parties, and I in no way make a party point on that.
Sometimes, if I may say so to my noble friend on the Front Bench, I think that Governments do not take over much notice of the House of Lords. There is a lot of media experience here. As I look down the list of speakers today, I see the ex-Times business editor, the ex-director-general of the BBC and the former chairman of the Guardian and I see the noble Lord, Lord Grade, who has the unique—I think it is unique—attribute of being the chairman of both the BBC and ITV. We started in Fleet Street at about the same time. He was on the Daily Mirror, I was on the Times, and he was infinitely better paid that I was. You also get alliances in this Chamber that do not take place in the other place. The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, and I joined the House of Commons on the same day in 1970, and it has taken us 41 years to be on the same side in a campaign. I am not sure what the public make of that. I hope they think it is an advantage. I hope that the Communications Committee can be taken into the consultations that the Government have on the committees that they set up and the rest. I know that my noble friend the chairman of the Communications Committee, who cannot be in his place today, feels that very strongly.
I think it would be wise if the political parties approached the inquiries to be set up with a certain amount of humility and recognise that we have all made mistakes over the past years. The aim should be to learn from them. The inquiries, which I very much welcome—I also welcome the appointment of Lord Justice Leveson to head them—give us that opportunity. Out of all the many issues, I shall pick three. First, the inquiry looking at media standards needs to examine how wide the abuse has been. We know that the News of the World was guilty of infringing the rights of the public but, to coin a phrase, was this just one rogue newspaper? Have newspapers used impersonation to obtain private information? Have they used private investigators with criminal records? Have they paid policemen and others to get information? I think we know the answer to that, but how widespread was it?
Secondly, we want to know why our defences have failed. Maybe the investigation of the police handling of this affair will have to wait, but no one should be in any doubt about how seriously the public take this issue. How can the break in the police investigation be explained? There are serious suspicions here, and those do serious harm to the public reputation of the police, which all serious people want to see preserved.
Of course, it is not just the police who are meant to be defending the public; it is also the Press Complaints Commission. It sometimes gives the impression of being a trade body, albeit with a disciplinary section for dealing with complaints, with the aim of defending the press. Whether that is fair or not, it is beyond dispute that over the past years the commission has not adequately defended the public interest. That may be because of a lack of powers or even of resources, but what is beyond dispute is that we must examine that and, in my view, seek to set up a strong and, above all, independent body to guard the interests of the citizens of this country.
Thirdly, the inquiry must examine the ownership of the media in this country. I think that underlying much of the reaction to events over the past two weeks is a strong public feeling in this country that Mr Murdoch has been allowed too much media power, that he owns too much of the British press and that full ownership of BSkyB would have further strengthened the position of what is a United States-owned company. I think it is crucial that we should revisit the rules governing foreign takeovers of British media companies. That position was changed fundamentally by the Communications Act 2003 and it has allowed the News Corp bid. Before 2003, there was a restriction on the stake that a non-EU company could take. The attitude of successive British Governments had been that, as we were prevented from taking no more than 20 per cent or 25 per cent in an American media company, there should be a similar restriction on United States companies. That position was very suddenly changed. We have now allowed United States companies to take full control but we are still restricted in the United States to 20 per cent or 25 per cent. On the face of it, that seems an absurdly weak position for us to be in and I believe that it should be examined.
We have just lived through the most dramatic 10 days in media history—certainly, the most dramatic that I can remember—where the positions have been changing literally hour by hour. The headlines say it all. One newspaper said, “The Sky falls in” and another said, “Rupert on the run”. But after the storm, I suggest that careful and searching investigation is needed. I am sure that we will get that from the inquiry. As for Parliament, our role is, as is suggested in the Times today,
“to inquire rather than to grandstand”.
I hope that we can inquire on a cross-party basis, which would give any of our inquiries much more strength.
Perhaps I may say that there is a massive opportunity to weed out the criminal and corrupt from British journalism; an opportunity to ensure that the public are properly protected from abuse while ensuring that the legitimate role of the press is upheld; and an opportunity to put the relations between Governments, Ministers and politicians on a better and more separate basis. If we can achieve those things, very substantial good will result from these bleak and troubled years.
My Lords, we as politicians are fond of quoting the famous dictum of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, that a week is a long time in politics. The events of the past 10 days in British politics, British journalism and British policing are such that a better phrase might be, “Ten Days That Shook the World”, which is the title of the US journalist John Reed’s classic 1919 eyewitness account of the October 1917 Russian Revolution. The world may not quite have been globally shaken by the News International phone hacking scandal of the past 10 days, but the worlds of UK politics, media and policing have unquestionably been shaken to their very core.
Ten days ago, News International owned four major British newspapers. The bid from News International’s parent company, News Corporation, for total ownership and control of BSkyB, which in revenue terms is Britain’s biggest broadcaster, looked set to be nodded through by the Government. Rebekah Brooks, the former editor of the Sun and the News of the World reigned supreme at the pinnacle of UK media power as chief executive of News International. The political power of the company derived from the sheer scale of the circulation of its four titles and their reach into all parts and classes of Britain looked both unassailable and permanent.
A mere 10 days later, after 168 years of publication, Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper, the News of the World, is gone. News Corp’s bid for BSkyB is gone too—pulled off the table by the company in the face of concerted condemnation from across the political spectrum. Gone as well this morning is Rebekah Brooks, sacrificed or sacrificing herself to try to help save the company. Gone too, it seems—or at the very least substantially diminished—is the power, wielded over UK politics by News International and its founder Rupert Murdoch, of more than 40 years.
In comparison with the spring revolutions across the Middle East this year, let alone the Russian Revolution of 1917, this may not be that much of a change, but in comparison with what has run for so long in British journalism and British politics it is a revolution indeed. A number of factors led to this revolution. The most forceful and important has been the public. Public opinion can be hard to hear. Whole industries and a wide range of mechanisms, opinion polls, focus groups and all the rest have been established and have refined their techniques over many years to help us hear the public more clearly, but the moment the story exploded when the Guardian newspaper revealed last week—only last week—that the News of the World had been hacking into the mobile phone of the murdered 14 year-old schoolgirl Milly Dowler, the public mood was clear, unanimous and determined. Without opinion polls, focus groups, elections or any of the machinery of catching what the public are thinking and want, the public transmitted their views in every home, shop, pub, town and village in every part of the country and beyond these shores. What the public thought and wanted was transparent, forceful and undeniable.
The press has been vital. Good journalism has been the engine for driving out bad journalism. The work of the Guardian particularly, and especially of its brilliant and unswerving investigative reporter Nick Davies, on digging out what happened at the News of the World has eventually had an effect almost certainly far beyond what that newspaper and its journalists would probably have ever imagined. When the Guardian revealed that phone hacking by the News of the World had moved beyond politicians, celebrities and sports stars, and had spread into missing children, fallen soldiers, grieving parents and into police corruption, the issue crossed a line that marked, on one side, public indifference to what had been seen as a Westminster village insider story and, on the other, revulsion, horror, outrage and anger from people in all parts of the country and in all walks of life.
Parliament has been central to that revolution. My noble friend Lord Mandelson, a Member of your Lordships’ House who knows a thing or two about politics and the media and their interrelationship said this week that the reason politicians chose not to tackle issues around media reform was that they were too fearful to do otherwise. This is a daunting but wholly accurate charge. In a democracy, Parliament and politicians should of course be scrutinised by the public, and from that organisations and institutions such as the media seek both to inform the public and to reflect the public’s feelings, judgments and wants. However, that media scrutiny has over many decades become entangled with media power, and a particular kind of power. As Stanley Baldwin so brilliantly characterised it in 1931, it is “power without responsibility”.
Politician after politician, from the Prime Minister onwards, now accepts that the relationship between politicians and the press has got seriously out of kilter. Fear of the media and fear of the consequences of getting on the wrong side of the media prohibited articulation of that before now, but in the past 10 days it has been articulated and it has been Parliament that has articulated it. It might have done so belatedly, but there is a real sense that there has been a shift and that a ratchet has been turned that cannot be turned back. Politicians from all sides of the political spectrum—right, left or centre—now have the prospect of being freed from the shackles of fear that have characterised the relationship with too much of the media. There has been fear of an unfavourable front page and fear of the public being turned against them by the media. As James Forsyth, who is not much of a friend of my party, says in this week’s Spectator:
“Rupert Murdoch’s hold on British politics has finally been broken”.
If that is the case, I, for one, am glad. That the spell has been broken means that the concentration of power is fragmenting.
When in the 1990s I was trying to defend my party’s relationship with the Murdoch press, my late husband, a principled and moral man of strong values, was critical. He was right and he would have been much relieved by the events of the past 10 days. It is the first time for decades that we, as politicians of all stripes, have started to regain our moral courage in relation to sections of the media. Some parliamentarians before now have, with real bravery, taken a stand over a much longer period. Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson in the Commons, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, from the Conservative Benches in this House, and my noble friend Lord Prescott, are most prominent among them. My right honourable friend Ed Miliband, our party’s leader, has brilliantly led the way on this issue. I pay tribute, too, to my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland of Asthal, the shadow Attorney-General, for all the close legal work that she has been carrying on behind the scenes.
In the face of the Motion put down by the leader of the Labour Party in the other place, which drew support from all sides of the House, News Corp withdrew its bid for BSkyB. Parliament in the form of the House of Commons spoke with one voice, and even the most powerful of organisations had to heed that message. I imagine that today in this House we, too, will speak with one voice, which I welcome. News Corp’s decision meant that this House no longer had to debate the same Motion today, but we can play our part. As I said, we on these Benches look to your Lordships’ House today to speak with a similar singleness of purpose.
The events of the past 10 days are in all likelihood a long way from playing themselves out. Criminal investigations are likely to lead to criminal prosecutions. The FBI is now involved in the USA. The inquiry the Government have established, which we called for strongly and now warmly welcome, has a great deal of work to do, which will take a while. This will be a long revolution but it will be a revolution with many twists and turns. If earlier this week it felt as though the scandal had peaked with News Corp pulling its bid for BSkyB, it certainly does not feel like that today with the resignation, accepted this time by the Murdoch empire, of Rebekah Brooks. And it will not feel like that next week when Ms Brooks, by then free of her responsibilities as News International’s chief executive although probably not from her contractual obligations, is due to be joined by who will by then be her former bosses, Rupert Murdoch and his son James, to give evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in the other place.
However, the nature of what has taken place and how it is being addressed means that this is a long-running issue, which in turn means that despite the imminent pressure of events there is a real opportunity now to get things right. The agenda to get things right, which the Prime Minister has laid out—police reform, press reform and political reform—is clearly the correct one and we on these Benches support it. Indeed, it is an agenda which my party has been promoting. Even within the constraints of criminal investigations, it is an agenda which the Leveson inquiry needs to begin to tackle. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I believe that it is an agenda to which we as politicians must respond with humility. Later in the debate, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland will set out some of her ideas on issues prompted by the events of the past 10 days to be taken forward.
Even when you are living through them, revolutions can be hard to spot. It is not difficult when it is Egypt this spring or Moscow in 1917, but it is harder when it is an invisible but no less potent change such as the advent of the internet or of social media. Some of those changes have been behind the media desperation that lies at the heart of phone hacking, the ruthless competition that drove the News of the World to do things that could not and should not in any decency have been contemplated, let alone carried out, but however desperate and however hard the competition, whatever the reason, that can never be an excuse for what went on in Wapping. Criminal acts are criminal acts. The scale of phone numbers that have now been listed suggests not only that this went on, and not only was it regarded as normal, but that it would in effect have been automatic. As soon as someone—anyone, it did not matter who—was in a story, their phone was hacked. In other words, there were no limits on behaviour.
However, the public do have limits, which are set by the rule of law, by values, by community, by families and by good manners. What we have seen over the past 10 days is a world apparently without limits where a powerful group, the media, felt itself to be beyond the law and where any behaviour is acceptable and anything goes. We have seen that come into conflict with a world where limits do matter, where decency and good behaviour matter, and where standards matter—and where, over the course of the past 10 days, those values have won. No one can say that this will not lead to a permanent settlement and a new way of how these important institutions, what they do and what they stand for, will work in practice, but here and now there is a chance to learn; as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, it is a chance for real change. That chance for change, for a small revolution in the worlds of the press, the police and of politics, is worth all of us—the press, the police, politicians and above all the people—seizing and working to secure.
My Lords, the issue of phone hacking at News International has evolved into a major scandal with implications not just for the media, but also for the Metropolitan Police. I would like to focus my comments on the implications for the Metropolitan Police since the Met’s conduct has, with some justification, I think, come in for quite a lot of criticism. There is an urgent need for reform. I shall preface my remarks by saying that in the seven years that I have been a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, I have met some absolutely outstanding police officers who are hard-working, dedicated, efficient and effective. But I have no doubt that the last two investigations conducted by the Met into phone hacking at the News of the World were limited in scope, not given sufficient priority, and just not thorough enough.
I believe that one of the reasons for this—it is certainly a contributory factor—is the cosy relationship that was allowed to build up between senior officers of the Metropolitan Police and senior executives of the News of the World and News International. This has bothered me for a long time. I raised it with the Acting Commissioner at the beginning of this year in public at the Metropolitan Police Authority. I was concerned that on no fewer than 36 separate occasions between November 2005 and November 2010, senior police officers met with senior executives of News Corporation and News of the World. They did not just have meetings; they also had lunches and dinners. What I found most extraordinary was that the two officers who led both of the investigations were involved in some of these lunches and dinners. I believe that that could be open to misinterpretation.
I have no doubt that there is nothing wrong in principle with police officers meeting with the press. Indeed, I fully accept that they need to do so in order to do their job. But it must be said that the Metropolitan Police already employs 69 people in its press office, which is quite a lot. Equally, there is no doubt that if senior officers are going to have meetings, it is absolutely essential that a transparent system is set up to record such meetings, lunches and dinners. I have written to the commissioner asking that he set up such a transparent system and I have suggested that all officers of ACPO rank and above should record all meetings and all hospitality, including receptions, lunches and dinners—by that I also mean private dinners—with journalists and media executives. I believe that there should be a system whereby all hospitality by senior officers of a value of £25 or more should be recorded and that such information should be on record in a register that is updated every month and made freely available to anyone who wishes to examine it via the internet. Such a system would involve no greater effort or disclosure than that which the Met has already been obliged to make in response to Metropolitan Police Authority questions and freedom of information requests. The difference would be greater efficiency, transparency and promptness.
Never again should we have a system where meetings, entertainment, lunches and dinners are open to misinterpretation. The time is long overdue for a transparent system that is open for everyone to examine, and I strongly urge that this is set up without any further delay.
My Lords, it has been a tumultuous week and I am grateful that we are having this debate. We could have held it on any day, but it seems better to hold it at this end of the week because the terms of reference, or at least the draft terms of reference, for the phone hacking and media inquiry to be chaired by Lord Justice Leveson are now available.
Before that inquiry takes on the retrospective task of investigating,
“the extent of unlawful and improper conduct within News International and other newspaper organisations”,
it is to undertake a more general inquiry,
“into the culture, practices and ethics of the press”,
covering press relations with the police and politicians. The inquiry is also to make recommendations,
“for a new more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media and its independence from Government”.
This may not be the optimal sequence of inquiries, but we must accept that the practicalities of beginning the inquiry while police investigation and prosecutions are under way may be a reason to work on recommendations for the future before completing the inquiry into the past. Any recommendations for the future must take a critical look at different conceptions of press freedom, their strengths, weaknesses, and justification, and determine which best support media communication that enables the public to assess what they read, hear and view.
In my view, the best arguments for a free press in a democratic society see it as supporting public, social and cultural life. Yet during the past 50 years media freedom has often and misleadingly been equated with and reduced to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression for individuals is a classical liberal demand, most often justified on the grounds that individuals' speech is generally harmless and innocuous. In the 20th century, media as well as individual freedom has also been labelled freedom of expression. Yet while the speech of individuals is generally innocuous, that of powerful organisations often is not. The media are and should be in the business of communication, not of self-expression.
An equally liberal but more plausible justification for media freedom appeals to the need of democratic citizens for media whose communication they can understand and assess, so allowing them to play a full and critical part in public, social and cultural life. Where readers, listeners and viewers cannot tell whether content is deceptive, or even whether it has been obtained by illegal means, the basic purposes of a free press are undermined rather than supported. Self-expression is not enough.
Effective communication requires media that treat readers, listeners and viewers with respect, providing information and evidence that help them to judge content intelligently, and so to place and refuse their trust intelligently. This needs regulation that provides less flimsy ways of maintaining media standards than those of the much derided Press Complaints Commission, which works to standards much less robust than those once common in professional and public life which the media have repeatedly criticised as inadequate. It does not seem likely that the media have such exceptional probity that they, unlike others, can effectively regulate themselves.
Yet already we hear claims that media regulation on a statutory basis would be even worse. On Wednesday, the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, suggested briefly that self-regulation must continue; I was glad to note that the Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was more cautious on this point. The fear of those who advocate self-regulation is that anything else would allow politicians to regulate the media, suppressing what it suited them to suppress, leaving us with censorship and not a free press.
Such claims are implausible. Press freedom is compatible with and best protected by regulation of the right sort. If we want evidence that regulation can be compatible with press freedom, we need look no further than the BBC, which is quite stringently regulated yet whose journalism has quite a high reputation for independence. Of course, the regulation that is right for the BBC cannot simply be extended to other media, and bad regulation, or regulation by politicians, would be risky and potentially disastrous. But there is no reason to settle for bad regulation, or to let politicians regulate. Setting up regulators indeed needs legislation, but regulators and their operational decisions can be insulated from political and party concerns. An appropriate media regulator could be expressly prohibited from controlling or censoring content.
Much can be achieved by regulating media process rather than media content. I offer three examples, one micro, one middling and one macro. I start with the micro example: transparency. Journalists, editors and proprietors could be required to declare their interests, like others in positions of influence, to list payments made and favours received—dinners, for example—without in relevant cases naming recipients and sources. They could be required to make such transactions, where they were financial, explicit in company accounts. The media have generally been keen to insist on the merits of transparency for others with influence and power, and what is sauce for the political goose is surely sauce for the media gander.
The second example is privacy. Recent revelations have made us all too aware that we need to revisit the question of privacy. Having incorporated the right to privacy into UK law, we have, perhaps understandably given the now acknowledged intimidation of politicians, failed to discuss, let alone implement, privacy protection. All that we have is the limited and clumsy protection afforded by the Data Protection Act 1998, which covers only organised, searchable information. A serious and unhysterical debate on privacy is needed if we are to find a form of media regulation that supports a strong, free and independent press that serves the needs of citizens.
The third example, the macro example, is plurality and culture. Media power in the UK is, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, reminded us, very concentrated. Much of it is in the hands of those with little stake in the future of the UK. Media regulation of concentrations of ownership and control could both help ensure that UK citizens have a plurality of offerings and that media power is exercised by those with a stake in our future. Is it right for those who pay no tax to have powerful voices in debates about taxation? Is it right for debates on UK strategic interests to be led by those who do not share our fate? Are citizens and democracy well served if many of those who control the media do not share citizenship, domicile or residence with their readers, listeners and viewers?
Long after the scandals of the hacks and hackers, the pols and the police have become history, we will be judged by the culture, practices and ethics of the media that we support in the wake of them.
My Lords, I am very happy to be on the side of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, on this occasion in demanding a public inquiry. It reflects well on the Houses of Parliament, both Commons and Lords, that they are demanding that some action should be taken. The noble Baroness, Lady Royall, spoke of eight or 10 days that shook the world; I am bound to say that this affair has been going on longer than that. It has been going on for a few years, and a lot of people have said nothing. I am glad that there has now been a complete change in the position and welcome the U-turn on the part of the Government in setting up a proper judicial inquiry.
The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, was also right to draw attention to the Information Commissioner’s report in 2008. The commissioner pointed out that there were 30 newspapers involved in all sorts of illegal acquiring of information, involving hundreds of journalists and the paying of many thousands of pounds. The report was ignored. Admittedly, that was during the period when we were in government, but, on both sides, not enough has been done.
Since 2006 and the successful prosecution of the original rogue reporter, Clive Goodman, there has been a conspiracy of silence and denial among the police, the Murdoch newspapers and the Press Complaints Commission, which has only just rapidly come to think that something is wrong. Thanks to the remarkable work of Nick Davies from the Guardian in July 2009, I and others have campaigned to uncover the truth. I might say that we faced some hostility and resistance, particularly from Mr Yates and Mr Hayman, who were in charge of the original police inquiry. They have now accepted that their inquiry was wholly inadequate and replaced it with the far more competent Akers investigation, which will bring back a little credit to the Metropolitan Police.
I also venture to suggest that the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision to side with the initial police view, writing to me to that effect, on ring-fencing the investigation and to ignore the 4,000 people who were hacked by Murdoch's News of the World, warrants closer scrutiny. There was far too close a relationship between the Crown Prosecution Service and the police in their agreeing to take no further action.
I also suggest that the decisions taken by Mr Hayman, the original Met investigating officer, and the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, both to go and work for Murdoch, were unacceptable and raise questions of conflict of interest.
The consistent denials of events—particularly from Murdoch’s News International—have been shamefully exposed by evidence that it had known about them since 2007. I hear Mr Murdoch saying, “We helped the inquiry by giving the evidence”. All this evidence was available at the beginning in 2006 but no one wanted to open the bags of evidence and no one wanted to carry on the investigation; they decided to close it down. That is the big question not only for the inquiry to take into account but the reason why I ordered a judicial review. The police were failing to carry out the inquiry and, frankly, it was only when they came before the judicial review that they decided to look at the issue again and found the second inquiry. But the denials were considerable.
The Press Complaints Commission failed to investigate the case while accepting the one rogue reporter’s story. The chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe—I am sorry she is not in her place today—after attacking one of the lawyers trying to make the case, was forced to make a public apology and pay £20,000 in libel damages. She is the chair of the body that is supposed to hold the press accountable. The total inadequacy of the PCC to carry out its responsibilities was highlighted yesterday by the arrest of the former deputy of the News of the World, Mr Neil Wallis, who sits on the PCC’s editors’ code of practice committee. So a lot of vigorous and robust research into such actions clearly went on there.
The failure of the Government to recognise the need for an inquiry into the conduct of News International, or even to consider whether Murdoch was a fit and proper person to own BSkyB—an issue which I constantly raised in this Chamber over many months—were fundamental errors of judgment, as was the appointment of Andy Coulson. I warned the Prime Minister in a letter I sent to him two years ago saying, “You will make a major mistake if you appoint this man as your director of communications. You will learn to regret it”. I hope that is how he now feels.
I now hear that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police hired the deputy editor to carry out investigatory work, to write his speeches and so on. No 10 was very unhappy about this because it was not informed, but, if the Prime Minister could hire Mr Coulson, why is he surprised that Mr Stephenson should go for the deputy editor? It all shows a lack of good judgment. It seems that this Government were more concerned about issues of plurality than morality.
The leading players in the Government and News International—the Prime Minister, Coulson, Rebekah Brooks, who I am glad has gone today; it is a step towards decent and responsible journalism in this country, although the 200 workers who have gone down the road from the News of the World might not appreciate that point too much—pretended that they did not know. They all said, “I did not know; it was not me, guv”. Even Miss Brooks, I am told, said in a statement that she likes to be on the bridge. I was a seafarer for 10 years and I would not have liked her on the bridge if she did not know what was going on and in which direction she was going. That is why she has gone, thank God. It is a “not me, guv” culture.
The biggest culprit in the affair is the spider in the middle of the net—Rupert Murdoch. He completely controls News International. He runs operations around the world, building News International’s media empire where there is more money to be made—Australia, the United Kingdom, the US and China.
China is interesting. I arrived back from China last week and someone gave me a book on Rupert Murdoch’s ventures into China to secure television and media control. The Chinese were too wise for him. The business model that he adopted is described by Murdoch’s vice-president in China in his book China Adventures. This tells how Murdoch tried to control China’s television and media operations—a Chinese version of Fox News, BSkyB and newspapers—but totally failed. The Chinese, quite wisely, did not trust him.
As an example, Harper Collins, which is owned by the Murdoch press, negotiated a contract with the noble Lord, Lord Patten, for his book on China. The Chinese authorities were very upset by what the noble Lord, Lord Patten, said about them and Murdoch was concerned that his commercial interests would be affected. He therefore ordered Harper Collins to cancel the contract for that book. This led to the resignation of editors from Harper Collins and the noble Lord, Lord Patten, described Murdoch’s actions as “the most seedy of betrayals”.
The Telegraph reported on this incident and described Murdoch as “the biggest gangster of all”, and the FT said that Murdoch was “the modern master of the universe bent double before the potentates of the people in Beijing”. Surprise, surprise, Murdoch’s media—the New York Post, the Australian, the Times, Sky News and Fox News—hardly referred to the matter. It was similar here. Even the Wall Street Journal said of Murdoch at that time that,
“he has a well documented history of making editorial decisions in order to advance his business interests in China, sacrificing journalistic integrity to satisfy personal and political aims”.
I had to think whether that was the same journal I was reading today—and then I discovered that he had bought the paper. Normally there would be a right to reply, but Murdoch buys the whole damn paper and gets it to say what he wants it to say.
Murdoch is the man we are talking about. All the others are bit players; Mr Murdoch is the spider in the middle of this net. If we do not deal with him, he will just go back to the same old practices; he will bid for BSkyB and use pressure on politicians to influence them. That is what we know we have to deal with.
The FBI is now involved in investigations and so “News International” may soon become “Murdoch Crime International”. It is a family business that has sought power, influence and money around the world. It has bullied Governments, taken out the competition and made billions out of the misery and grief of ordinary people. These days are now no more as the Sun sets on his miserable empire. Parliament must now address itself to finding a proper balance between private and public interests and we have started the debate here. The balance between public and private interests is an issue of public and human rights and we must address ourselves to that. Many individuals have supported this position but, at the end of the day, we have to be sure that we do not go back to business as usual. We must bring back decency and responsibility into the British press. We can start by completing the job with Murdoch.
My Lords, it is with some nervousness that I speak. This is only the second time that I have spoken in your Lordships’ House—and I know that the first time all noble Lords had to behave themselves.
I am also nervous because I am extremely angry. This is the story of my life because I grew up with Murdoch’s increasing power. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is not in his place today but as I was growing up there was a systematic rubbishing and persecution of the noble Lord and an endless denigration of the office of the leader of the Labour Party which took relentless forms. The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is a man like any other man: he has got vices but he also has the tremendous virtues of compassion, a love of justice and a love of people, and he showed a real determination when he faced down the ugliest parts of our party. We knew that and yet it never came through. That is when I began to realise that there was a systematic power to what Murdoch was doing to make or break leaders. For more than 30 years, no political party or Prime Minister has won an election without Murdoch’s support. He has the power to make and break kings.
This is not a party issue—new Labour was extremely complicit in accommodating Murdoch. That is why I have tremendous pride in the leader of the Labour Party for confronting Murdoch’s power in Parliament. The Sun, Sky and the Times—but the Sun in particular—were already beginning to denigrate Ed Miliband; they started running six-minute loops of his repeated mistakes, pulling panda eyes and were beginning systematically to attack him.
When the leader of the Labour Party stood up to Murdoch it reminded me of the biblical story of King David. King David was sitting in his farm looking after his sheep—his brothers were generals and lieutenants in King Saul’s army—and Goliath, the great bully, the giant who was going to attack them, was standing before him. Aristotle said that anyone outside law and relationships is either a beast or a god. In our contemporary life, Murdoch has been like a beast and a god: he could attack you and destroy you or he could give you great power and glory. He was outside of constraints and outside of law. It was with great courage that the leader of the Labour Party stood—as King David stood—before the bully and, with a single stone, laid him down and began this change.
It is a great honour to the Government that they followed the lead of the Labour Party and began to speak of some virtue in our lives—because what we have had is vice. What Murdoch has bought, and we can see it all around us, is accommodation, corruption and fear. We can see it in the police and the Government; in both sides, there is a real fear to speak freely and a relentless war on the daily lives of politicians. There are good days and bad days—we all have them—but our civility was coarsened by Murdoch. It is a wonderful thing that it is Parliament which has stood and that within Parliament we have asserted that this tyranny cannot go on.
Every day when I come in, I give thanks to the statues of the barons around here, because they held the sword to King John’s throat when he said that the King could rule without Parliament. They said that it always had to be a relationship and that the King had to rule in Parliament. Whoever held the sword to Murdoch’s throat? Who was Murdoch accountable to? He was a beast and he was a god—he was outside of all relations. So it is a wonderful thing if we can follow the Commons’ lead here and say that in our politics we need courage and leadership and that people make mistakes, but we in this country govern and rule ourselves with our free institutions and choose our own leaders. It is not to be dictated to us by foreign multimillionaires who rules us and who does not, who is credible and who is not.
I urge noble Lords to remember that this Chamber is the crown of the constitution. Our obligations are to uphold the ancient liberties and the balance in the constitution to make sure that there is always reciprocity and balance in relationships—and I am sure that today we will not fail to uphold that duty.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Fowler has happily reminded me, I started my working life as a trainee sports writer on Hugh Cudlipp’s Daily Mirror, a brash but intelligent, mass market, pre-Murdoch tabloid. It was the people’s paper and it sold five and a quarter million copies every day. That was in the 60’s. Since then, I have been involved in the discussion and resolution and management of countless tricky editorial issues at ITV and Channel 4 and as a quasi-regulator at the BBC. I have even recently been a complainant.
I do not want in any way to anticipate the outcome of the judicial inquiries to come, particularly on the future of press regulation. My remarks today in this welcome and timely debate are designed to explore some principles and arguments that will inevitably centre, and have indeed already centred, on the statutory versus the self-regulatory.
The knee-jerk reaction to the current scandal is that the newspapers have been drinking in the last chance saloon of self-regulation for so long that it is now well past chucking out time. The press has always set its face against statutory regulation, denouncing the very idea and dismissing it as the enemy of free speech. Well, “Up to a point, Lord Copper”. There is an overwhelming argument against statutory regulation, which I will come to, but I am not exactly sure that this is it.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, is right. The news and current affairs journalism at ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky are regulated by the statutory media regulator, Ofcom, which drafts statutory producer codes. The BBC’s news and current affairs is overseen by two bodies, both Ofcom and the BBC Trust with overlapping powers. I join the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in saying that there is no evidence whatever on the screen that this statutory regime inhibits their freedom to carry out responsible and robust overlapping powers. However, what statutory regulation cannot and will never be able to do is to prevent wrongdoing from happening. Anyone who thinks that it can, please see me after, and I will take them through the thick volume marked “Broadcasting horror moments”—but please, not before the children are in bed at nine o’clock. But after broadcasters get it wrong, they certainly get it in the neck, and they feel it in the wallet, from Ofcom. But let us not ignore in this debate that statutory regulation in broadcasting is fundamentally there to ensure impartiality, an irrelevant concept for newspapers.
Having said this, let me say precisely why I come out against statutory regulation. My objection is founded on my recent experience. Here I must declare my interest as a very recently appointed Press Complaints Commissioner, although I am speaking today in an entirely personal capacity. The statutory regulation of media is always ex-post regulation. Ofcom has no ex-ante powers to stop publication, nor should it. The remit of the current PCC does, however, include the ability to offer ex-ante direction to editors on behalf of members of the public. The PCC brokers hundreds and hundreds of effective desist actions to editors at the request of innocent members of the public who suddenly find themselves at the centre of a media storm. This can mean the withdrawal of reporters and photographers from someone’s pavement; it can be the editor’s agreement not to publish something; or it can be an agreement to desist from simply approaching a family or individuals for comment. This happens in multiple cases every single week inside the PCC.
The notion of trying to draft a statute to enable pre-publication desist notices while maintaining a free press does not belong in a democracy. Such a statutory regime would undo at a stroke the good works that the PCC presently undertakes. Ordinary members of the public derive huge comfort and satisfaction from the power of the PCC to influence newspapers, and sometimes TV editors, and to influence their behaviour—this is the important point—ahead of publication. This is the untold good news story of the current self-regulating regime. This must not be lost. For me it is the self-evident and overwhelming argument against statutory regulation.
In the debate about a new and improved form of self-regulation, of course there are many lessons to be drawn from the present regime. I give a few examples. In my view, any new model needs to pass the Caesar’s wife test: it must not just be independent but it must be seen to be fully independent of those it is regulating. Any future constitution and governance structure needs to deliver transparent independence from the working press. Crucially, it will need greater powers of sanction. This will need to be binding on all newspapers. There must be no room in self-regulation for any single newspaper to opt out. Any new model will need to be properly resourced and therefore able, if necessary, to afford to commission independent investigations as required. The current PCC has no such funds. Funding for the new body can still be required from the newspapers themselves as at present. This is no different from broadcasting, advertising and other regulated sectors. In future, the chairman, like the rest of the board and staff today, should be appointed independently and not by the newspapers.
I think we can all agree that a robust and free press is an essential dynamic in a functioning democracy. Any new regime must serve those two principles and it must also be capable of promoting the ethical imperative. But make no mistake: only self-regulation can be relied on to continue delivering ex-ante relief and restraint for the members of the public it is there to serve.
A word here, and in conclusion, on what action might be taken in the interim, as we await the outcome of the judicial inquiry or inquiries. Leaving to one side, as if that were possible, the unconscionable intrusions into grieving families’ privacy, perpetrated by the criminal activities of the late News of the World, the secondary fallout—the aftershock, if you like—is the public opprobrium and scorn, both here and abroad, that has engulfed the whole of our national press, not just News International. Your Lordships may note that I have not described this as a loss of trust. I do not think this is a case of losing the trust of readers. So far as the red-top tabloid newspapers are concerned, I am not sure that they ever enjoyed the trust of their readers—loyalty, yes.
The recent television equivalent of this print crisis, as your Lordships may recall, was the premium telephone scandal that, ironically, the press so valuably exposed. Broadcasters immediately realised that to restore their reputation, they had to face up to the problem—and quickly. No expense was spared on independent legal and forensic audit inquiries. Millions of pounds of compensation were voluntarily paid to charities and all the evidence gathered was handed both to the police and the regulator. Fines were then imposed; reputations were slowly restored. As President Nixon discovered, it is not necessarily the mistake you make; it is the subsequent cover-up that does for you.
In her customarily insightful blog, which I recommend to Members, my noble friend and erstwhile colleague Lady Stowell wrote the following this week:
“The thing that’s different between the print and broadcast media’s separate catastrophes is public trust in and opinion of tabloid newspapers has been low for years and they’ve survived without it. So the question we have to ask is: what motivation is there for newspapers to get their house in order?”.
My noble friend points out that the tipping point in public opinion was when the hacking moved from the rich, famous and powerful—the bankers, celebrities and MPs—to ordinary folk, like the Dowler family, like themselves. The papers are felt to have turned on their own readers. My noble friend then offers this advice to the newspapers:
“So instead of the question TV execs asked themselves: ‘how do we restore trust?’ the question for the newspaper industry to reflect on is: ‘Do people still think we’re on their side?’.
I hope the whole House will agree with me that, as a first step to demonstrating that the whole press is on the side of its readers, national newspapers—title by title, editor by editor —should make a statement in their own columns that they condemn the chasing of spurious scoops by criminal means and, further, they should declare unequivocally that their paper has not taken part in any such activities. We all hope that this issue is limited to what we know today but, in the words of Private Eye, I think we should be told.
My Lords, may I ask one short question? Having listened to this debate and, indeed, to most of the debates—I apologise for having lost my way here—surely care has to be taken to ensure that the requisite freedom of the press, and I stress requisite, is not inhibited? Some of the reasoning was just given by my noble friend.
My Lords, may I remind noble Lords that we have a speakers list?
My Lords, I did not know and I am so sorry. Well, it need not be reported.
My Lords, I hesitate to rise in these circumstances. I wanted to speak today not because I have any special or exceptional knowledge of the media industry but because it is incredibly important that we have as many speakers from all parts of this House on this Friday afternoon, which is probably not convenient for anybody who is here, to make it clear both how significant we regard these issues and that we will not allow the matter to slide away. With the extremely welcome appointment of the inquiry under Judge Leveson, the closure of the News of the World, the resignation—as we now know—of Rebekah Brooks, and the agreement of the Murdochs, father and son, to appear before the Select Committee next week, it would be very easy to become complacent and assume that this matter will now work its way out through the system.
I believe we have a unique opportunity now to try and contribute to finding the right footing on which to put the regulation of the media in this country so that we both protect the absolutely critical and crucial freedoms of the press—as the noble Lord who believes that his words will have been struck said—and protect the public from abuse. It will be clear to anyone who has listened to the Murdoch family that they expect this issue to go away, while Mr al-Waleed and other investors in News Corp see that there will be an opportunity to come back and bid for the rest of BSkyB once the dust has settled. I recommend to anybody today's copy of the Wall Street Journal, which is sitting in the Library, for the interview there with Rupert Murdoch. Others have quoted in detail from it but, frankly, you could use the words, “Butter wouldn't melt”. There seems to be no real recognition, certainly from the Murdoch empire, that the matter has changed, even though that has to be absolutely clear to the rest of us.
In terms of reform, if the mechanism is to be the Leveson inquiry, it is going to be important that this House contributes to looking again at the appropriate structure for the Press Complaints Commission. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Grade, that I do not think that the public have the kind of confidence in that body that he may have suggested. At the very least, it looks utterly impotent. I believe that to most of the public it looks as though it gives the interests of the media much more significance and weight than the interests of the individual. It would seem that fundamental reforms are needed, such as making sure that the commission at least has a majority of lay people on it—somewhat closer to two-thirds—having a tightening-up and, perhaps, the actual implementation of the code of conduct and having proper penalties, which have not existed in the past, including potential imprisonment for the obtaining of personal information. It seems to me that there have to be real teeth to any commission but that has not been its past character.
We have sat around with the phone-hacking scandal on our hands for several years, in which the evidence has either been in the public arena or, certainly, before a very wide range of people and the Press Complaints Commission has been able to act in only the most limited way to deal with that crisis. Frankly, if we had not had the appalling revelation of what happened to the Dowler family, we would still be in that same situation. We cannot continue with a regulatory structure which allows that to happen.
I thought it might be quite interesting, since the issue of plurality has come up, to take a look at the stable-mates of the News of the World and see how they had been covering the phone-hacking story, especially since all of them regard themselves as aggressive, investigative media outlets which look without fear and favour. It has to be said of the Times, the Sunday Times and BSkyB that they were, essentially, very late in coming to the table and recognising the issue. When they finally did, there were quality stories but it cannot be said that it was the best day for outlets that call themselves investigative freedom fighters on behalf of the public.
Looking at the Sun, it struck me as absolutely appalling that there was almost no coverage. When it finally came, if you were reading the Sun you would have assumed that Rupert Murdoch had uncovered the phone-hacking scandal and was leading the investigation and looking for the remedies. I found it most chilling of all—this may go back to my first point—that the editorial on 11 July by Trevor Kavanagh, which was essentially regretting the death of the News of the World, was a diatribe against the BBC. It ended with a scarcely veiled threat that basically said:
“But we should examine closely the motives of those who brought it”—
the News of the World—
“to its knees”.
The notion that the empire has accepted the verdict of the public and recognised the full extent of these issues is very far from the reality. We cannot allow that creeping dominance of the political voice, by either the Murdoch empire or any other empire, to happen again.
I raise again the issue of ownership, which others have mentioned. It struck me that we might have been in an extraordinary situation in the next few days, in which Murdoch father and son could have been called before the Senate in the United States but we might have found ourselves impotent to call them before a committee of this House. It is still unclear to me what the legal position of this House is in relation to owners of newspapers who are not citizens of this country. That whole issue has to be part of the examination. As someone else pointed out, it might be interesting to raise the issue of tax residency when we are having that kind of conversation. We cannot face that kind of humiliation again.
I come from a party that obviously has not had close relationships with the Murdoch empire. One can say that it has either ignored us or, from time to time, viciously attacked us—it did so in a very personal way to Nick Clegg at the most recent election. I am convinced, though, that we have to hold together and be above party in the way that we deal with these issues. I went to hear part of the debate in the other place, and I have to say that it began to break into a partisan debate across the Floor. That did nothing to assist us in the primary purpose that we must have, which is to use this opportunity to ensure that our press regulation is put on an utterly proper footing that we would all agree on.
I looked at a speech that James Murdoch made in 2009, where he said that the independence of the press could be protected only by profit as the primary driver. I think we would agree that the independence of the press is assured not by profit but by recognising the values of our society, the rights of the individual and putting the freedom of the press alongside that. Let us take this opportunity to ensure that we achieve the greater good, the silver lining, out of what has been a terrible cloud.
My Lords, events have moved at a break-neck pace in recent days—even this very day, with the news of the resignation of Rebekah Brooks. It therefore behoves us all to recognise the difficulty of analysis in such rapidly changing circumstances. We need to recognise the fundamentals of the problems that face us. It has often been said that the United Kingdom enjoys the best press in the world and a great deal of the worst. This may be an opportunity to ensure that our people are served by somewhat better than the worst as far as the tabloid press is concerned.
We should not underestimate the extent of the public revulsion at what has gone on and the public will of course expect intelligent and considered action by us. The problem is that, while we live in emotive times with regard to these issues, there will be a considerable lapse of time before the public inquiry produces its analysis and its identification of wrongdoing. The extent to which that then sustains the public will for effective change is an interesting dimension of the difficulties that we face.
I served on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in the other place for several years. I recall the Sun newspaper, in the form of its extraordinary editor at that time, Kelvin MacKenzie, coming to the committee simply to display his total contempt for all politicians and the political process and to indicate that the Sun was the moral force that actually responded to the people, while politicians were not worth a row of beans in terms of their attempts to inquire into the issue of the power of the press.
Things have changed, partly because public opinion has expressed revulsion at what has gone on. That opinion has been guided by the fact that several talented individuals, like Nick Davies of the Guardian and my honourable friends in the other place, Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, have been brave enough to sustain an argument that we as politicians, as we all know, have often shied away from in the past, simply because of the raw power of the Murdoch press. The fact that the balance has changed and we have an opportunity, though, does not mean that we should underestimate the difficulty of responding to that opportunity.
I appreciated the points that the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, put forward about the challenge that lies before us. Are we in this country going to produce a law of privacy that protects individuals from the most outrageous intrusions into their lives? We all know the costs of a law of privacy regarding press freedom as represented in France, for example, so there are real dangers with such a law, yet who can doubt that the intrusions into privacy by News International that have occurred and have been documented in recent years, including, but not only, those by the News of the World, present a very real issue? There is a demand from the public that we offer elements of protection for ordinary people.
Then there is the aspect of press regulation. I agree with all the speakers who have indicated thus far that self-regulation looks to be a busted flush, certainly if self-regulation means a minor revamping of the Press Complaints Commission, which has manifestly failed to play its role in the emergence of this crisis.
What is the model for regulation if not self-regulation? I agree with those noble Lords who have indicated that we might start by looking at television regulation. After all, we are conscious of the fact that there is a great deal of freedom for, and some significant impacts on public opinion have been produced by, effective investigative television journalism—some of the best in this country. However, is it the case that the nature of television regulation is readily applicable to the press? There are some real difficulties in that area. That is why this debate—which has gone on for at least two decades, and I guess rather further back into the mists of time than that—indicates how difficult the position is.
We should rejoice that the cathartic effects of recent developments are such as to give us the chance to give our people a better deal than that which has obtained in the worst of the press in recent times; unless, that is, one thinks, “Well, it is just Murdoch and News International”. I remember my father’s shock 50 years ago in a “liberal” household at the News Chronicle, a definitively reputable organ of civilised opinion, being replaced by the Daily Mail through our letterbox. As far as he was concerned, the Daily Mail was a right-wing junk newspaper substituted for the Chronicle by the sheer force of the ability of the Harmsworth Press to buy out the title and do so.
These issues of press ownership have been with us for a considerable period. Although we are now concentrating on News International, we will have to legislate for the press in this country in general. We do not have an easy path before us.
My Lords, I first congratulate my noble friend Lord Fowler on having pursued this issue with such vigour. I also support his opening remarks that we should not condemn all journalism because of the allegations surrounding some newspapers.
I do that with something of a vested interest, as someone whose career has largely been in journalism. I have worked extensively for what is now dubbed “the Murdoch press”, particularly the Times and the Wall Street Journal; occasionally I still write for the Times. Having listened to my noble friend Lady Kramer, I confess that, having always had the highest admiration for the editorial standards of the Wall Street Journal, I concur that this morning’s interview with the proprietor was perhaps not its most probing. Having been a journalist, a banker and now a politician, I feel that I am perhaps going to have to try estate agency to enhance my standing and public esteem.
There is no excuse for the phone hacking and bribery. Now, quite rightly, both practices and the industry in general will be examined by judicial inquiry. However, we must be careful not to endanger journalism in general. It can be a force for good. The London Evening Standard's current campaign to improve literacy has the potential to enhance many thousands of lives. It may not be on the same scale of bravery as was that of the Sunday Times campaign on behalf of thalidomide victims, but it is shining a light on something of which politicians should be ashamed.
Responsible journalism should continue to do that. It should inform, it should stimulate, it should even entertain—but it should never mislead. If it does err, it should be quick to point to the error of its ways. That is why I was somewhat surprised to see that great campaigner for press morality, the paper that has done so much to expose phone hacking, the Guardian, decide that its corrections column on page 36 was the place to tell readers that, actually, the Sun’s story about Gordon Brown’s son was not the result of information being obtained from accessing medical records, as the Guardian had so boldly declared to the world. Newspapers can be as guilty as politicians of finding a good place to bury bad news. I contend that page 36 is probably not the place.
The Sun does it.
That does not make it right.
Now that the spotlight is shining so intently on my trade, it is quite right that we should be focusing on areas beyond hacking. The relationships between the press, the police and politicians are now rightly under scrutiny. However—and I know that there will be many in this House who do not believe me—in many years of working for Rupert Murdoch, both at the Times and the Journal, I never felt under any pressure to write a particular story or take a particular line. I was free to express the opinions that I held, and they were rarely flattering to the Governments that my proprietor supported. Nevertheless, I wrote what I wanted.
However, I experienced appalling pressure from what I suppose one must term the other side of the divide. Noble Lords may recall that when Gordon Brown became Chancellor, he installed as his henchman one Charlie Whelan. My economics editor at the time wrote a story to which the Chancellor took exception. Mr Whelan called her and, when the swearing came to an end, told her that the Times would be punished. It would be ignored for a year—no invitations, no press releases and no interviews. As far as the Treasury was concerned, it would not exist. We took this to be bluster but the curse of Whelan duly took effect. My economics editor, a well respected journalist, tried reasoning but to no avail. We did not get the information that we needed on behalf of our readers. In the end I had to take up the matter with the Permanent Secretary, who quite understood that a politician or his adviser could not deprive a national newspaper of legitimate chains of communication with a government department. That was a dreadful attack on the democratic process.
Bullying on that scale is rare but it shows why we must be careful not to see the relationship between politicians and the media as merely the first always trying to curry favour with the second. In its current form, this relationship works both ways. Both have a degree of power and influence and use it, not always in the right manner. The media are hungry for scoops and politicians can hand them out. In City journalism, where I cut my teeth on a Sunday newspaper, in the old days we would wait for what was known as the Friday night drop. Before insider trading became an offence, public relations people would go around, distributing various “scoops” that we could print on Sunday. That dried up when the law was tidied up, but the same thing has not happened in political journalism; scoops, interviews and exclusives are handed out.
Increasingly, the trend has been for announcements that should be made by the Government to Parliament being made instead through newspapers to their readers. This is not healthy. The rot had clearly set in when Tony Blair, as Prime Minister, told his team, as they developed their policies on the family, that,
“we need two or three eye-catching initiatives … We need more. I should be personally associated with as much of this as possible”.
In those words are encapsulated two of the problems that have contributed to the current miasma: too much emphasis on the cult of personality and too little respect for Parliament. The former has led to the media being awash with stories about the private lives of people, many of whom I have never even heard of but who seem to be worthy of headlines. From what has come to light it seems that much of the hacking was aimed at establishing what footballers were doing off the field—a variation of the offside rule, as I understand it. The public are clearly interested in this stuff but it is not in the public interest that appetites for seedy gossip should be fed.
As these inquiries progress, we will examine what really is in the public interest. Things have to change. It will not be easy to reach agreement on this. It will be even harder to find a means of regulation that can safeguard it in an internet age. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Grade for his ideas; there is meat there on which we can build. Regulation clearly needs to be tightened up.
However, on the second point—that of relationships between the media and politicians—I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, for reminding us of the story of King David. The message is that politicians need to be brave. They should not quake with fear of newspapers, whether they are owned by Murdoch or anyone else. As Prime Minister, my noble friend Lady Thatcher did not kowtow to any newspaper baron. She did what she believed in. There is a message there.
My Lords, there has been a national shudder of shock, anger and shame at the degradation of certain sections of the press that has been brought to light; at the corruption that has been exposed in the police; and at the unhealthy relations between politicians and the media that have been highlighted. It is also fair to note that these matters have been exposed by the better sections of the press and in the debate in the House of Commons earlier this week, tabled and led by my right honourable friend Ed Miliband. We have seen vented the loathing of many politicians for the media. While relations between individual politicians and individual journalists are frequently cordial—and there is nothing wrong with that—institutionally, the relationship between politics and the media has become poisonous. Why should there be this loathing?
There is a loathing of the recklessness with the truth of some journalists, the all too habitual trivialisation of issues, the assumption that there appears to be in extensive parts of the media that the attention span of the public is minimal and that issues are best reported and discussed in terms of personalities, and that politics is little more than an unsatisfactory subset of the entertainment industry. There is a loathing of the selectivity of reporting, the blurring of fact and opinion, the hypocritical combination of high sententiousness and low practice, the wilful confusion of the public interest with what interests the public, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, just said, and the swaggering rejection of ethical obligation on the basis that journalism is not a profession but a trade. Legislators must be concerned if journalists set themselves above the law, particularly if newsgathering methods include bribery and hacking. Legitimate ends surely cannot justify illegitimate means. There is a loathing of the cynical exploitation of self-regulation and the contempt with which elements of the press treat the Press Complaints Commission and its code. What we witness and what we dislike is the exercise of power without responsibility and what we loath, on the occasions when it occurs, is the cruelty of the media—the malice and the thuggery of the press pack in full cry, which is the modern equivalent of the lynch mob.
While these are proper grounds for disapprobation, they are liable to be mixed with a jealous resentment which may be less legitimate and which we ought also to consider. Politicians often feel that journalists do not take them at their own estimate of themselves, are insufficiently deferential and do not report them as they ought to be reported. There is a feeling that, if they notice us at all, it is to caricature us, and that humiliation at the hands of the sketch writers is the best recognition that many a Back-Bencher will ever receive. There is a resentment among politicians that many journalists are better than they are at their job—they are cleverer and quicker. There is a jealousy that in the public perception and often in reality journalists rather than politicians lead the national debate, and that campaigning journalists are often more effective than campaigning politicians. There is a fear on the part of politicians that the media have displaced Parliament. Where is the true debating chamber of the nation? Is it the House of Commons or is it the studio of the “Today” programme, of “Newsnight” or the editorial column of the Sun or the Daily Mail? There is a competition for power between politicians and the media and politicians feel that they have been losing that competition.
That atmosphere of jealousy, resentment, loathing and exultation in the new discomfiture of an enemy is not the best atmosphere in which to design reform. The Government were right to set up an inquiry led by Lord Justice Leveson which will proceed deliberately and gradually to advise politicians and government on what may best be done. What we should have no doubt about is that reform is essential.
I see the power of the media as a constitutional issue; indeed, a constitutional issue that is more important and more pressing than many of the constitutional issues that the coalition has chosen to address so far. It is a constitutional issue because a free media is indispensable to our democracy. The media mediate information and the public debate. There can be no healthy democracy without a healthy media. On behalf of the public, the media should, indeed, scrutinise politicians.
I am not aware of any country that has found a satisfactory way to accommodate the media within its polity. In the United States the First Amendment guarantees freedom of expression, but the United States has the National Enquirer and “Fox News”. So what should we do in Britain? Good constitution-making finds ways to contain power and interest within structures that help ensure that power functions for the public benefit; that scope for the abuse of power is minimised; and that where abuse takes place there can be redress. Our present constitutional arrangements fail to accommodate the power of the media to this standard. In the liberal state to which we aspire we want a very large freedom for the media to investigate, to report, to expose, to challenge, to develop public understanding, to stimulate opinion and also to inform understanding by politicians of the public. We should have the largest freedom of the media consistent with other claims that a free society must also make, including the establishment and the guarding of a legal right to personal privacy and the observation of the limits to tolerance of decent public opinion.
The extent to which there should be freedom of the press will depend upon the extent to which the press is prepared to be responsible. It is best, of course, if there is a culture of responsibility and external restraints are not felt as such. However, where self-regulation fails, legal restraint must operate. There always are elements of the media that are not responsible, and it is not just the tabloids. Grand editors of quality newspapers tell us that they have the right to break the law in what they interpret as the public interest. However, the rule of law is a no less important value in a liberal society than freedom of the press. The law must be sensible and reasonable, and it should contain a presumption in favour of freedom of speech, but that end should not warrant nefarious means such as blagging and hacking.
Self-regulation is essential and it is for the industry to redesign the system of self-regulation to produce a modified Press Complaints Commission or some other body that the industry now believes is the right one to have. That body should articulate standards, secure assent across the industry to them, operate whatever sanctions it can, and negotiate redress for people who are injured, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, rightly reminded us.
However, self-regulation is not sufficient. We have had 20 years of experience since the Select Committee on National Heritage, of which I was a member, reported on the problem of media intrusion into privacy. The media have had 20 years in the last-chance saloon. The time has come for the state to create a statutory underpinning for self-regulation. Statutory regulation, of course, should be at arm’s length from the politicians. There is no new principle here. We already have the Competition Commission and Ofcom, which are responsible for statutory regulation to protect plurality and to ensure that fit and proper people control the media. We have the Information Commissioner, the data protection regime and the law of libel, about which editors grumble, but they should not pretend that statutory regulation is of itself a shocking innovation or a violation of press freedom. The media will no doubt fight against it, but Lord Justice Leveson should now design a statutory system to define the boundary between acceptable conduct by the media and that which is unacceptable, and he should propose sanctions that will effectively deter abuse or punish it if it has occurred. As the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, the present crisis provides an opportunity.
However, when scandals have occurred in the past, Parliament has shied away from its responsibility. Clutching the tattered banner of press freedom, politicians have shirked tackling abuse. Only unwittingly did Parliament act in 1998 with the enactment of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated into our domestic law the right to privacy contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. The judges have begun to construct a jurisprudence. That was not a bad way to embark, and we should praise the courage and decisiveness of the judges. However, super-injunctions and opacity are obviously not satisfactory, and the Prime Minister was right to say that it is for Parliament to enact a law of privacy.
We must not, this time, shirk that responsibility. We are wrong if we suppose that the present crisis has already set us free. The closure of the News of the World and the resignation of Rebekah Brooks will not solve anything. The dynamics of the situation remain unchanged. We will still have a mass media. The configuration of it will be different; Murdoch may loom less large; newspapers may continue to decline and new media to grow. But democracy will still require information that can be trusted and a media that enables public debate to be articulated. Competition within the media will still be frantic—indeed, cut-throat. Proprietors and journalists will still want power. Politicians will still seek to mobilise the media for their own purposes—to get their stories out, to spin and to win elections. I fear that there will never be the clear water between the media and politics that the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, hankers after. Politicians will still be frightened by the power of the media to inflict damage on Governments, political parties and individual politicians themselves. It will be very difficult to achieve a better pathology, but we must now find better ways to accommodate the media within our evolving constitution and the political life of our country.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, for whom I have the greatest respect, for giving way. I draw his attention to the usual courtesy to the House of participants withdrawing if they are unable to arrive in time to hear the opening speeches in a debate. Other noble Lords who unfortunately found themselves in the same position as him have courteously agreed to withdraw from the debate. In acknowledging that business this morning moved faster than anticipated, I say with great respect that it is for each of us individually to arrange our lives to be here even if matters proceed so quickly. The House even, unusually, allowed five minutes’ grace before the start of the debate. I appeal to the noble Lord to consider carefully whether he should speak. If he insists, it is of course a matter for the House to decide whether your Lordships wish to hear him.
My Lords, I was going to apologise—I do apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall. I was misinformed about the likely start time of this debate, and I was here at the time when I was told that it was likely to start. Of course I will respect the will of the House, and I ask the House whether it wishes to hear my views on this important matter. I detect that the mood is that I should continue.
I beg to move that the noble Lord be no longer heard. This is wrong. Despite the fact that we did not say aye or nay, or content or not content, we assumed that the noble Lord would take the mood of the House. Other people came late as well and took not the mood but the convention of the House and did not speak.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness says, it is indeed correct that the convention of the House is that if one is not here at the beginning of the debate, one should scratch. However, there are mitigating circumstances. Although I appreciate that people should be here long before the start of a debate, it is difficult if one is told that it will be an hour and a half later. I therefore suggest that rather than noble Lords who were not here at the beginning of the debate giving their full speeches, they should limit their speeches to two minutes. I have been speaking to my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, who asked if she might speak in the gap for a couple of minutes. Personally, I would find that acceptable. I am not a Whip, but I put that forward as a way through this matter.
Before the noble Lord responds, perhaps I may clarify that part of the problem was the uncertainty yesterday about the start time of this debate, when we were being told by people on the government side that it would start at 12.30 pm. I missed the first few minutes of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, which was not very long, but it was primarily because I had a delay elsewhere. I want some guidance on this. One problem with the House is that we do not have clear start times. It would save everybody a lot of problems if we did. My view is that in a debate of this nature, we should let people speak.
My Lords, perhaps I may respond to the Leader of the Opposition. If noble Lords agree, then in the rather unusual circumstances in which we find ourselves that would seem to be a very sensible suggestion. If, as the noble Baroness suggests, noble Lords could keep their speeches to two minutes, I am sure that the House would be very grateful.
Perhaps I may seek clarification. As someone who scratched earlier, might I be allowed to have my two minutes in the spotlight and, if so, when?
My Lords, I think that the convention would be to do so in the gap. I am sure that the House would like to hear the noble Lord.
My Lords, this is profoundly unreasonable. My office called the Whips’ Office this morning, not yesterday, and was told that the debate was likely to start at 12.30 pm. I have not prepared a two-minute speech; I have prepared a longer speech, and I am not willing to speak for two minutes. I have never, and would never, wish to be discourteous in any way to this House. Again, I ask the House to allow me to make the speech that I have prepared.
My Lords, I am in a similar position. I consulted both the Government Whips and the Opposition Whips last night and was told that the debate was likely to start at half-past one. I got here well before half-past one. I am very apologetic to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, but we must have some arrangement whereby the people who are responsible for our getting here too late are called to account. It is simply not fair to proceed on any other basis.
My Lords, the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition suggested a time limit of two minutes. I responded that I thought that that was reasonable, and I hope that the House will agree to go with it.
My Lords, I do not know whether it is appropriate to comment but everyone seems to be doing so. I understand that the convention of the House is that speeches are not read. Although that convention is frequently held in abeyance, it means that your Lordships all have the capacity to consider and present the key points of their statements, perhaps with an opportunity for people to read the full speech on a later occasion.
My Lords, surely the circumstances today are quite exceptional. It seems to me that the House would be very interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Birt, has to say. I am sure that he will confine his remarks to a reasonable minimum, but I think that we should hear his contribution to this debate.
My Lords, I thoroughly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has just said.
I am grateful to all noble Lords. I suggest that we proceed with the debate. If the House wishes to hear the noble Lord, Lord Birt, perhaps he would like to keep his comments as brief as he possibly can.
My Lords, I do not wish to prolong this. I have no objection should the noble Lord wish to continue and should that be the will of the House, However, if the noble Lord, Lord Birt, is going to speak, then I think that for reasons of equity it should be possible for my noble friends Lord Gilbert and Lord Myners, as well as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, also to speak.
My Lords, following that, I can only sincerely hope that noble Lords think that what I am about to say is worth hearing.
This week we have witnessed a shameful reckoning for many of Britain’s leading institutions. No one who has gained celebrity, or who has been prominent in British public life over these past few decades, will have been at all surprised by recent revelations, for the scale of intrusion into private lives by a number of media organisations and by a variety of means—whether trickery, deception, theft or bribery—has been a commonplace experience for many, as I expect the judicial inquiry will draw out. Phone hacking was but a new and pernicious refinement—a new technological tool of a well plied trade. The perpetrators were not just print media outlets but the variety of agencies and lone individuals who support and serve them.
Yet despite the widespread understanding of this position, almost no one rose to the challenge of confronting it. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, is a rare and honourable exception, as are the Information Commissioner and the Guardian. Now that we know what the police knew, we can see how lamentable was their response. Of course, hacking does not rank with terrorism but it is none the less a most serious matter of public interest when the phones of a multitude of citizens of every kind are targeted and when some are hacked. The police should have mounted a major and vigorous investigation and they must look at themselves and understand why. Another institution—the PCC—has long been a feeble front, unwilling to consider and grapple with the darker forces in the industry that it regulates. It is a pity that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, is not here today to help us understand why. The noble Lord, Lord Grade, will bring invaluable experience to the PCC in the difficult period that it has ahead.
However, the police and the PCC were not alone. Both main parties have been persistent victims of these forces, yet have done nothing. The undercurrent of self-congratulation in the other place this week could not be less merited. In truth, we all understand why nothing was done. It is natural to cower before such great and potentially destructive power. But it was not admirable. Against the background of these long established behaviours, the events of recent months still seem extraordinary. When News Corp wanted to acquire the whole of BSkyB, Ofcom identified many issues and recommended to the Secretary of State that the takeover should be referred to the Competition Commission for a full inquiry. That, as we know, did not happen. The Secretary of State used his discretion to allow News Corp to propose remedies, which it did in respect of Sky News but not in respect of the wider issues about dominance and diversity that concerned, for instance, almost everyone who spoke in our previous debate on this matter in your Lordships’ House not so many months ago.
It soon became clear that, like his predecessors, the Secretary of State would not bite the bullet; he was willing to allow the takeover to proceed. Luckily for him he was saved by the bell. A single horrendous episode—a bolt of lightning—switched the fulcrum of the debate overnight. Much as it may have disgusted us, the hacking of Milly Dowler’s telephone did not raise a brand new issue of principle. Accessing anyone’s private communication is in principle wrong. As the person who produced David Frost’s interviews with President Nixon in the 1970s, I spent a significant amount of time studying Watergate. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said earlier, and offer some simple advice to senior News Corp and other media executives: it is not the crime that brings you down, it is the cover-up.
We may now face a gruelling few years as a judicial inquiry unravels these practices, and not just within News Corp. We must await the full evidence that emerges; but it is not too soon to begin learning lessons and to consider what we should do next. Our media concentration rules are archaic. News Corp may not own more than 20 per cent of ITV but it may own a far bigger entity—the whole of BSkyB. We should prize plurality and seize the moment. We must severely reduce the concentration limits in respect of UK media and cross-media ownership. For clarity: I would no more wish to see the Guardian gain a dominant position than News Corp.
Secondly, as a society we must decide what standards we want in our print media. However the information was obtained, Gordon and Sarah Brown should not have to face the involuntary exposure of their young child’s severe medical condition, and nor should anyone else.
We have insisted on high standards in our broadcast media for the best part of a century, as many noble Lords have observed. At the BBC, there is a thick volume setting out key values and offering guidance and rules on hundreds of editorial matters, and it is constantly updated in the light of experience. Compare the BBC’s guidelines sometime with the PCC’s skimpy folio. The BBC’s guidelines are not an encumbrance. They are rooted in the public interest and they promote it. No one can suggest that the BBC or the other public service broadcasters which abide by similar principles have not provided a sharp range of opinion, fearless journalism of exposure and real challenge, and creative expression of originality and daring.
A vigorous, pugnacious, sharp elbowed press is a vital part of our democratic tradition, and no one, but no one, would do anything other than fight to maintain it. Finally, if we are to have a press which also behaves ethically, we need a regulator with teeth which can not only frame ethical guidelines but can also enforce them.
My Lords, I, too, had originally scratched. I apologise to the House because, like others, I had understood that the debate was to start much later. I am grateful for the short time that I shall take.
I adopt the arguments made by many about the terrible conduct that has led to the creation of the judicial-led inquiry. For me, it is about the debasement of our values. It is interesting to note that three crises have come to light in as many years involving our financial system, our political system with the abuse of allowances, and now our press. That tells us something about the power of the masters of the universe and of big money, and how it corrupts our society.
I want to touch on an important point about the judicial inquiry, which will have two phases. I fear that the second phase, about shedding light on corrupt practices, will be kicked into the long grass and that it is likely to be many years before we get to the bottom of what really has gone on. I therefore urge that through the auspices of our political leaders, the judicial inquiry in its purview will have the opportunity to provide immunity to journalists who have felt ethically compromised by the conduct within their newspapers, and who might be willing to give evidence but do not want to be in fear of prosecution and of mightier powers. We must give them assurances that they will not be vulnerable, because only by doing so are we likely to get to the bottom of the corruption. I hope that our law officers will give guidance on that. It is not a practice that is usually undertaken in this country, but it will perhaps be important if we are to flush out the full extent of the abysmal corruption that has taken place.
I also hope that the inquiry will be properly resourced. Sue Akers, the police officer who is currently undertaking the inquiry into phone hacking, says that the police have 12,800 names to go through and that only 30 or so can be dealt with each week. It will be a monumental task, and I therefore ask that real resources are put into it because of the fundamental role that a proper and ethical press plays in our democracy. Thank you.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, on giving a short, succinct speech that was entirely to the point. I am sure that we were all grateful for that. I will begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Fowler, who has slipped out for a moment, for setting a very high standard for this debate with his opening speech. He was followed by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, who also gave a masterly speech that was very moderate, sensible and balanced.
We need in this debate to set the matter in a historic context. Technology has made a difference, but we have had times when press barons wielded enormous and indeed unwieldy power. One has only to mention Northcliffe—the Napoleon of Fleet Street—and Beaverbrook, to know that there were those in the past who might have done great good but who also wielded enormous power. It is in that context that we should look at these issues today. That is in no sense to excuse the criminality that has made us all deeply ashamed that the British press has sunk so low. As I said, technology has given people the opportunity to do many of these terrible things, but one is reminded of the famous dictum of Lord Acton that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. There is truly a danger of that with the Murdoch press.
I was very concerned two years ago, as we all were, by the scandal of Members of Parliament's expenses, which even touched your Lordships' House. The noble Baroness who has just spoken referred briefly to that. During the debates in another place, I made the point that it sometimes seemed that the fourth estate was hell bent on destroying the other three. However, because of that, we must not be tempted into the sort of indiscriminate attack that some of the press—not particularly the Murdoch press in that case—indulged in during the so-called MPs’ expenses scandal. In the summer of 2009, one was reminded, from one's historic reading, of Titus Oates—or, in my case, of my memory as a young schoolboy of McCarthy.
We do not need to go down a similar road. My noble friends Lady Wheatcroft and Lord Fowler referred to the press. We have many journalists of high repute. We owe a great deal to our free press in this country. A free and responsible press under the law is as essential to a free society as is a free Parliament. Therefore, during the inquiries that will take place, and particularly during the parliamentary inquiry that will begin next week when the Select Committee has before it Mr Rupert Murdoch, Mr James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, we must heed—my honourable friend Lord Fowler referred to this—some of the words in the Times leader this morning.
I speak as a former chairman of a Select Committee. It is the duty of such a committee to probe, to examine and to be inquisitorial in the best sense, but not to grandstand or seek personal glory or publicity. It must ask questions and carry on asking them until proper answers are given: and if proper answers are not given, to draw the right and appropriate conclusions. I have great confidence in my honourable friend John Whittingdale, who chairs that committee. I do not know all the members of the committee, because many entered the House only last year. However, I would say to them all, “On your shoulders rests a very great responsibility. In a sense, you are acting for Parliament as a whole, so ask the questions, pin down your witnesses, but resist the temptation to score cheap points”.
As I said, a free press is as necessary to a free, functioning society as a free Parliament, but I was very taken by some of the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, when she talked about values. She referred to her late husband, very movingly I thought. What has happened in this country over the past two or three decades is a loss of values. Children are being brought up in an atmosphere where they are not taught the difference between right and wrong. It is an inevitable progression from that childhood that in adulthood young men and women will be tempted to think that anything goes, so long as it produces the appropriate result. That is the culture that underlies much of this perverted investigative journalism that has brought us here this morning. Investigative journalism is a marvellous thing, but if it is perverted, it sullies and besmirches our whole society.
I believe that out of all this, good must come, and it is essential that we all play our part in trying to ensure that it does and that we see an end to the manipulation and a proper regard and mutual respect between the media, politicians and the great British public, to which both Houses of this Parliament are answerable and to which the press also should be answerable. I very much hope that there will be a reawakening of a proper sense of moral probity and right and wrong as a result of what has happened to families such as the Dowlers over this past week. It is unthinkable that that should have happened. It must never happen again.
A heavy responsibility rests upon us, but we have to see this in its historic context. We must not panic because there is no situation that is not made worse by panic. What we have to do is to try to ensure that in the future there is a properly regulated press that is not inimical to the idea of a free press. I am not sure that I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Grade about self-regulation. Other professions are not self-regulated in the way that he seemed to imply, but, obviously, he speaks from great experience, and one wants to be able to consider with great care, after this debate, what he said. I believe that we need to have a press complaints commission—and this is no criticism of my noble friend Lady Buscombe, who sadly is not in her place—in which we can all have confidence and trust. Trust is the lubricant of a free society, and it is sadly lacking at the moment.
I am comforted by two things. I never subscribe to Balfour’s dictum that nothing matters very much and most things do not matter at all, but I think there is something in the words of the late, great Viscount Willie Whitelaw who said that things are never quite as bad or as good as they seem.
Before my noble friend sits down, taking his historical reference to the relationships between, let us say, Northcliffe, Beaverbrook and the leaders of political parties—
My Lords, there have been lots of problems with the speakers list. Perhaps this discussion can take place later.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who has a long and distinguished record, on what he has been doing recently. To repeat what I said earlier, my apologies for missing some of the opening comments for the reasons I explained. Let me come to the heart of the issue. I do not think at this stage that I want to address the issue of what we do about the Press Complaints Commission. As an investigation has been set up into that, today we need to identify some of the key questions that have been asked over time and need to be answered.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, will recall that in 1992 he chaired an official committee of the House of Commons on my Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill. We took evidence, which was highly publicised by television, radio, and by one or two newspapers but hardly any of the others. The whole record of that committee is now in the House of Commons Library and, I think, the House of Lords Library and it gives the full details. In that Bill, I tried to balance the freedom and responsibility of the press. One of the things that the Sun used to say at the time was, “This is really just about stopping the press from publishing” and it attacked me for what it claimed was trying to close down and to limit the press.
The trick in this is to get the right balance between freedom of the press, which we all want, and the responsibility which we know has gone badly off the rails. It is possible to have a statutory model, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Grade, indicated, is the model of the electronic media, television and radio. But there is also the Advertising Standards Authority, which has a statutory back-up through Ofcom if it is necessary.
One of the first questions that an investigation has to answer is: should we have a statutory or a non-statutory body? It is a difficult question. I think that statutory regulation can be done without losing press freedom. It is perfectly possible to do it, although there is an argument about desirability and some of the issues around what is a newspaper and what is not a newspaper. There is a problem in that area.
We have been faced with unaccountable power by large media groups. This applies not just to News International, but to other groups too. What has been happening is not new. One of the reasons I stress this is that when people say that politicians did not fight this issue, actually, a lot of us did. A lot of us got a lot of flack for doing so, as many people will know, in the other House and in this House at times. Certainly, I have had things happen to me which should not have happened by a decent press, but, curiously, at the end of the day, I did not feel intimidated. Why? It is because I am a fairly experienced politician and a fairly experienced public figure, and at times you shrug your shoulders. But you do it about things that members of the public should not have to shrug their shoulders about. If my kids are photographed over the garden wall I can deal with that in my own way with the journalists involved but an ordinary member of the public cannot do that, which is something we need to emphasise.
On privacy, a key question for the committee concerns the balance between the need to know and the desire to know. Do we want to leave it to the courts to decide the balance between Articles 8 and 10 of the European convention—privacy and the right to free speech—or do we want a separate privacy law? That key question must be answered. I have referred to the power of the press in this House and in the House of Commons on previous occasions. I have publicised all of this and it has been in the public domain for some time. I mention again the case I took up against the then editor of the Sun, Stuart Higgins, and the gross harassment and bullying that was happening at the Sun. I have to say to people who work for News International that I do not believe that it was not known; I do not believe that it was not known to Rebekah Wade; and I do not believe that it was not known to Rupert Murdoch. Why do I say that? When it happened I got convincing evidence from a senior member of News International, whose confidentiality I will still respect. I had already spoken to two of the people who were most dramatically involved and had suffered a lot. One of them, a woman, is still under an injunction from News International not to talk—and this from an organisation that complains about injunctions from people in public positions.
I shall read a letter from Olswang, the solicitors for the victim at the time and now, of course, the solicitors representing News International:
“The lady concerned was completely without fault”.
This is what News International claimed, but at the end of the day the editor was the person who made the publisher a vast amount of money per week and he ran his own show. Therefore,
“the editor’s staff were disposable”.
That is exactly what happened at News International last week. When I wrote to Rupert Murdoch asking how much was paid, I was told not by Murdoch but by other people that it was half a million pounds. That is a lot of money and you do not get it for having your bottom pinched. There was then some argument about whether it was as much as that, but of course a lot of the expenses were also paid. I still do not know the figure. Did I get a reply from Rupert Murdoch? No, I did not. I wrote to Rebekah Wade, who replied immediately to say—this is how the intimidation can work—“Tell me, Mr Soley. How many cases of sexual harassment did you deal with when you were chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party?”. The answer, incidentally, is that I did not get any complaints. But you can see the mode they operated in; it was immediately to try an attack on me without answering the question. But how can you pay out large sums of money without the owner knowing, let alone the editor? I then got another letter from the human resources manager who simply said that he was going to close the correspondence with me.
I turn to the power of the press. The press will often say, “We are here to hold power to account”. I agree with that, but of course it immediately raises the other question which the committee will have to look at: who guards the guards? If they do not report what I was doing on my Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, and if they do not report it when I run that story, which was reported on the BBC “Today” programme, by the Guardian and the Independent and then died, you have a real problem on your hands.
I want to end on two points. Ownership is an issue as is the issue of the link between politicians and journalists. Let us remember that in the 1970s an elected politician could expect to be reported in the Times. I do not want to go back to such simple methods, but when that stopped, what happened instead was that newly elected people like myself realised that we had to make links with journalists in order to run a story. That is not going to stop, but even with the new media which will change the nature of this argument considerably, we will need to look at how journalists and politicians work together to run a story.
I want briefly to mention the issue of post-publication. Any controls on the press, whether voluntary or not, need to recognise that they have to be imposed post-publication, not pre-publication. I hope that that will be taken into account. It is also clear that the issue of payments made to the police must be taken into account. The other very difficult matter the committee will have to consider is that if we are to have a body, either statutory or non-statutory, that can impose punishments on the press, those punishments, again, must not inhibit the freedom of the press to report. There has been a long history of this and I have had a long involvement in it. For the first time for 20-odd years I feel that we are getting somewhere. It is not before time.
My Lords, I have to declare an interest as a former group production director and personnel director for News International eight years ago, and a beneficiary of the News International pension scheme. As someone who spent his life in newspapers, I am saddened by the developments of the past few weeks and the impact on the reputations of all those who work in the newspaper sector. The only encouraging factor which should not be forgotten is that it was the determination and diligence of other parts of the press that brought this abuse of media power into the public domain.
The News International I worked for was a brilliantly successful operation, producing 5 million newspapers a night. It had transformed the technology and the restrictive practices of the past. All four of its titles had been revamped into vibrant titles. Journalists went to work for News International because the company valued and resourced them. BSkyB has been a brilliantly innovative business and the group employed some of the best in the sector. It was led by the media genius of his age.
What has gone wrong and what can we learn from it? The key is that one of the paradoxes of market capitalism is that success can breed arrogance and complacency. Rupert Murdoch was too brilliant an entrepreneur to allow complacency, but he bred an arrogance culture which has now undermined his company’s reputation. Too much market power was connived at and ignored by the political establishment of this country. That fed the arrogance of people who thought they were untouchable. It led to overdominant power, where pricing policy, promotional spend and cross-subsidisation of titles all hinted at anti-competitive activity, which was suspected but was never exposed. It meant that established politicians cowered rather than face up to them; it has clearly made some of their staff think they are above the law; and it seduced and compromised the police. Arrogance has grown as they became more dominant and became less subtle.
One of the signs of the changing judgment in the company was the ill-judged decision by the Sun to ditch Gordon Brown’s Labour Government in the middle of the Labour Party conference in 2009, just as it had abandoned John Major ahead of the 1997 general election. It was arrogant; it was ill judged; it was an incitement to the understandable ill will and resentment which has boiled over in the past couple of weeks.
What do we need to do? First, we have to grapple and challenge ownership and size in the media sector. It is the key issue now. The current mood in the country is very much like that in post-war France after the fall of the Vichy regime, when nobody would admit to being a supporter of Marshal Pétain.
Last December, the Business Secretary, whom I am sad that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, did not mention in her roll of honour, almost alone questioned the dominance of the Murdoch empire. He was prepared to ask whether it is right to accept that 40 per cent of the market is too much for Tesco but not to apply the same principle to News International. News International has become almost too dominant in newspapers. Until a few days ago, we were prepared as a country to complement that press dominance with a similar dominance in broadcasting, where Sky last year spent 50 per cent more on television than the BBC. The figures are stunning: £6 billion against £4 billion.
It is clear that corporate governance is not working in the press media. Did anyone in News International evaluate the damage done to its journalistic brand by compromising journalistic integrity and engaging in criminal behaviour? It is clear they did not. It has compounded that by condoning a seeming cover-up at a senior level. I hope that the recent appointment of a former Labour Home Secretary, David Blunkett, as adviser on corporate social responsibility will not prove too burdensome for him.
This matter is not confined to News International. Other media groups are noticeable by their silence. Why are they not declaring that none of their journalists phone-hacked, bribed policemen or illegally processed personal data? The silence suggests that they know they cannot or they fear the worst.
I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Grade, said. There are others, however, calling for the abolition of the Press Complaints Commission. It needs a thorough revamp; it needs to be strengthened; it needs greater independence, proper investigation powers and the ability to enforce corrections and sanctions. If this model can be applied to broadcasters, why cannot it be applied to the press?
It was clearly not in the public interest that Vince Cable was silenced on media issues by the Daily Telegraph in December last year. The PCC declared that the Telegraph conducted “unacceptable subterfuge”. Did Vince Cable get a fulsome public apology from the Telegraph? Did the journalist get disciplined rather than promoted? I simply do not know—and that is why the current system does not have public credibility.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for allowing me to intervene. In declaring my interest as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, I can confirm that the Daily Telegraph had to publish a full, half-page apology.
My Lords, we have had many problems with the speakers’ list today. I suggest that after the debate would be a better time to answer such questions. The noble Lord should continue.
The point I was making is that I do not know that. That is why the Press Complaints Commission does not have credibility.
The danger in the current mood of hysteria and sanctimony is that it will lead to restrictions on the freedom of the press. I welcome the recent speech of the current Deputy Prime Minister. We need now a structure of regulation which preserves media freedom while curbing abuse and, particularly, deals with concentrations of unaccountable and uncontrollable power in the media.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, I, too, apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the two noble Baronesses who followed him for not being here at the opening of the debate. In my relative infancy as a Member of your Lordships’ House, I took the advice that I was given by the same source as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, that the debate would start between 12.30 and 12.45. I decided to get here 30 minutes earlier—frankly, that was only to ensure that I got a seat—and the debate had already begun. I apologise to your Lordships and, particularly, to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler.
I share the revulsion that has been shown over the disclosures of the phone hacking practices of the News of the World and, who knows, maybe other sections of the media. As a former police officer, I am also appalled at the allegations—particularly if they turn out to be true—that police officers sold information to a newspaper or newspapers owned by News International. Whether it is illegal phone hacking or, equally, the unlawful selling of information to the press by serving or former police officers, we are all hanging our heads in dismay at such disgraceful activity, and the sooner we get to the bottom of this the better it will be for everyone.
It was therefore with great relief that I heard that the Government had asked Lord Justice Leveson to undertake a thorough and public inquiry to do just that. The terms of the inquiry are wide-ranging, as they should be, and all noble Lords will be aware of the scale of the inquiry following the Statement on phone hacking given in another place on Wednesday of this week, just two days ago, and repeated in this Chamber by the Leader of the House the same afternoon. I am sure that we are all relieved at the extent and terms of the inquiry.
In the mean time, the police inquiry by a completely new team, led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, into the phone-tapping allegations will continue and, undoubtedly, the learned judge will examine that most carefully. He will also, we hope, establish the truth as to why the initial inquiry was not continued. We all hang our heads over these dreadful events and allegations and until the matter is cleared up— particularly, from my point of view, the allegations of police corruption—my once proud boast that I served for nearly four decades in what I thought was the world’s finest police service, the Metropolitan Police, will seldom pass my lips again. I, like the present commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and the vast majority of present and former police officers, not only in the metropolis but throughout the whole country, will pray that guilty parties, whomsoever they may be, will be identified and soon join the ranks of the unemployed—dare I say it, during Her Majesty’s pleasure.
I have spoken recently to Sir Paul Stephenson, the present Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police who in my view is a man of the highest integrity. Sir Paul demonstrated his determination to get to the truth of the allegations of police involvement by immediately asking the Independent Police Complaints Commission to carry out an independent and thorough investigation. One important point that I would wish to make is that, until that investigation has been completed by Lord Justice Leveson, I ask that noble Lords do not assume that police have acted in an unlawful and deplorable way. If there is a guilty party, he or she will be hunted down relentlessly and have to take their punishment. But it does seem true that, as they say, if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick.
In this country, we are fortunate that we have a police service where integrity, determination and honesty are the order of the day, and if any police officers do not contribute to that, they should look for some other job. I was going to suggest that perhaps they should go into journalism. [Laughter.] I hope that that will be struck from the record! It is unfair that revelations about phone-hacking practices of some sections of the media have been used to level accusations at the police service as a whole. Am I wrong in thinking that an organisation that would sink so low as to intercept messages made to and from those who were already suffering awful heartache and tragedy would not stop at making accusations against others to divert attention from themselves? But I know that Lord Justice Leveson will look at this with his usual thoroughness.
To finish, I must, perhaps ill advisedly, make a comment about the proceedings in the Home Affairs Select Committee earlier this week, when it questioned serving and former senior officers of the Metropolitan Police. I expected a professional, probing and searching examination to take place, to help discover the true facts about why the original investigation did not continue, the relationship between News International and senior officers and the question of illegal payments or inducements to one of the former officers. What I did not expect to hear were members of the committee laughing at their own somewhat weak jibes.
This series of allegations is of the utmost seriousness, but I could not help the feeling that the committee was enjoying the outing. I imagined, wrongly I hope, that at the closure of the committee’s questioning, its members would hie off to the bar and enjoy a repeat of some of their own comments. I am pleased, as all honest police officers will be, that the inquiry where witnesses will be summoned to appear and be examined under oath will be far more rigorous and searching. In the short debate following the Statement by the Leader of the House on Wednesday, the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, commented about the worth of the time spent by that Select Committee. While admitting that I have no experience of the workings of such committees, could I seek your Lordships’ indulgence for my impertinence by suggesting that perhaps members of such a committee might benefit from a course on the art of interrogation?
My final words are thanks and congratulations to the Government for appointing this wide-ranging inquiry. We look forward to the outcome of the enquiry by Lord Justice Leveson so that, whatever it reveals, if unlawful or in any way improper, it can be dealt with firmly and appropriately.
My Lords, I believe that Hackgate was described by Emile Zola in the 19th century:
“If you shut up truth and bury it under the ground, it will but grow, and gather to itself such explosive power that the day it bursts through it will blow up everything in its way”.
Perhaps this is why politicians are struggling to keep the issue reined in. It is not simply to do with legality. I am just a newspaper reader, thankfully not a victim, and like most readers I have few answers but many questions. Here are just three. How widespread was the collapse of leadership within the press? Why were there, seemingly, so few Deep Throat-type characters in our newsrooms revealing these practices? Have other institutions had similar troubles?
First, how widespread was the collapse? The best evidence I can find comes from the Guardian column called Media Monkey. On 1 May 2002, Media Monkey wrote a report on the Guardian's website on the newspaper industry's Princess Margaret awards. These awards are colloquially called the Shaftas, as they are for the worst journalistic mistakes that year. The 2002 awards were sponsored by Vodafone. The evening was attended by Piers Morgan and the Sun newpaper’s then showbiz editor Dominic Mohan, who is now the paper’s editor. Media Monkey said:
“Ring, a ring a story. How appropriate that the most glamorous event in the showbusiness calendar should be sponsored by a phone company. Mohan went on to thank ‘Vodafone's lack of security’ for the Mirror's showbusiness exclusives. Whatever does he mean?”.
I am afraid that this was to an industry audience, which unfortunately leads to the inevitable conclusion that there was widespread collapse in the leadership within the press. However, did Vodafone take any action as the sponsor of the awards? With so much of our lives moving on to smartphones, the lack of proper security systems for mobile phones must not be lost in this debate. Also, if you were a member of the audience, who do you report this to? Do we need a kind of Crimestoppers for whistleblowers?
Secondly, there is the lack of a Deep Throat. It is a shame that the UK has adopted the word “gate”, from Watergate, for our scandals but, seemingly, does not have whistleblowers of the Deep Throat kind or more investigative journalists in the Woodward and Bernstein mould. I believe that deeply embedded in the nation's psyche is the idea that you do not snitch. Along with institutional cultures of fear if you speak out, that makes a toxic mix. We need more whistleblowers, not leakers. Whistleblowers speak out in the public interest. I hope that through this inquiry, we will rediscover what is genuinely in the public interest—not what is interesting to the public or to the political advantage of some.
Gordon Brown was right to question the public interest in revealing his son's condition but that is precisely why it could have been stopped, as it was a clear breach of the Press Complaints Commission’s code. The idea of the media wielding such power over leading politicians that they do not use the code is quite chilling. Although one can understand that a father with a son who has cystic fibrosis wants to have the condition's profile raised, his knowledge of Fraser Brown’s condition was not his news to tell. I hope that he was not paid for such information and I am encouraged that he estimates that approximately 100 people would also have known—and everyone else respected the Brown family's privacy. Sources of information, including celebrities who sell intimate details of their private lives, and readers such as me are all responsible. However, for the Sun to be asserting that it is fine to find out the private information about the children of public figures, as long as it is done by legal means, is not evidence of the new ethics the public want to see in the media.
The public interest also does not equate to political advantage, so for politicians it is about limiting leaks while preserving whistleblowing. Christopher Galley was sacked from the Home Office for leaking information to politicians. Politicians need to be very circumspect about documents that are leaked by civil servants because they supposedly contain information in the public interest. Governments need to be able to trust civil servants, and politicians and the media should not provide incentives for conduct by civil servants that may not be illegal but amounts to professional misconduct.
Unfortunately, the culture of silence in newsrooms has been found in other institutions: the Catholic Church; the BBC and ITV over telephone voting scams; HBOS, which made the whistleblower Paul Moore redundant after he warned of reckless lending practices; and Bristol hospital, when consultant anaesthetist Dr Stephen Bolsin broke ranks to expose high death rates among heart surgery patients who were children. Interestingly, Dr Bolsin said why he broke the silence:
“In the end I just couldn't go on putting those children to sleep, with their parents present in the anaesthetic room, knowing that it was almost certain to be the last time they would see their sons or daughters alive”.
He could not do what he knew in his conscience was wrong. How do you legislate for or regulate that? You cannot. Regulation alone is not the answer.
Along with the noble Lord, Lord Glasman, I believe that the public feel that there is a crisis of leadership in our public institutions and are wondering who to trust. Alas, the Anglican Church owns $6 million worth of shares in News Corporation, so I doubt that the archbishops are able to step into the gap. Despite this leadership vacuum, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a modern-day separation of powers between the press, politicians and the police, to rediscover the meaning of the public interest and to find out how profits, readership and popularity came to matter more than honesty and integrity.
I believe that eventually the truth will out. America looked back on Watergate and saw the truth come out as the result of the door to an office being left inches open so that a security officer realised that someone had been in there. This nation will look back at “Hackgate” and see that the truth came out because Prince William and his contact were not available to speak directly so left voicemail messages. The royal household also had the discretion to know who holds what personal information, and inadvertently that discretion will have served the nation oh so well.
I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for the opportunity to speak on today’s Motion. I do not envy the task before Lord Justice Leveson and his panel, but I wish them well.
My Lords, one of the things that we certainly have to do is reform this House so that we do not have a repetition of the intolerable debacle at the beginning of today’s debate. This should be perfectly simple to arrange. The Front Benches should get together, and it is simple to agree that business of certain types will not start before a certain time so that everyone knows where they are. It is beyond me why we have not done something like that before.
Why? What about the rest of them who were here on time? What about that?
My Lords, I am sure that in the past, although it may have slipped his notice, my noble friend Lord Gilbert has been told that times given for the start of particular items of business are an assessment and may not be relied upon. In asking everyone else who is here to wait for up to an hour, I feel that my noble friend is being a little unreasonable.
That is precisely the point of my complaint. They should be something that you can rely on. There is no reason whatever in a modern assembly why you cannot do so.
Having got that off my chest, I want to say how much I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge. She said, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, put forward the same sentiment, that you had to have public servants you could trust. I am afraid there is one very prominent public servant I do not trust. My speech can be read in an article of 16 March 2009 in the Independent over the by-line of Mr Stephen Glover:
“Should we worry that Ofcom's new boss has a black mark on her copybook?”.
The black mark on Miss Colette Bowe’s copybook is that when she was director of information at the Department of Trade and Industry she leaked a letter from the Attorney-General. She was not a young, fledgling secretary; she was the director of information, a senior official. Not only did she leak the Attorney-General’s letter, an unspeakable thing to do in the first place, she edited it tendentiously, as the Select Committee found. She edited it in order to do as much damage as possible to another serving Cabinet Minister, the then Mr Heseltine, in pursuance of a feud between him and the then Mr Leon Brittan—he might have had his K by then, I am not sure.
The committee of which I was lucky to be a member, which had seven Conservative members and was chaired by a former Conservative Chief Whip, found Miss Bowe’s conduct, “improper, tendentious and disreputable”. I say again, “disreputable”. I was horrified when I discovered that Miss Bowe was about to be appointed chairman of Ofcom—by a Labour Minister, I am afraid. I found out at the very last moment. I managed to buttonhole the Minister in the precincts of your Lordships’ Chamber. I said, “Have you gone stark staring mad? Do you know of this woman’s record?”. The only answer I got was a smile and a, “That was a long time ago”.
I have a second concern about Miss Bowe. At the time of her appointment, an article appeared in the Financial Times. It said:
“A Commons committee … cleared her of any wrongdoing”.
The next day I wrote to the editor. A month later, I had had no reply. I sent a second letter to the editor. A month later I had still had no reply. I sent a third letter saying that I was referring him to the Press Complaints Commission. Noble Lords would be surprised how quickly he replied: the next day. I do not share the pessimism of everyone in your Lordships’ House about the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission; it certainly scared the pants off the editor of the Financial Times in March 2009. I got an answer, and a correction that said that she was not cleared of all wrongdoing but was one of five civil servants who had been severely criticised by that committee. It was probably the most heavyweight departmental committee that had ever been set up at the other end of the Corridor. It was stuffed full of privy counsellors, Ministers, future Ministers and, as I say, its chairman was a former Conservative Chief Whip. It took a very dim view indeed of Miss Bowe.
My second concern is therefore how this report came to appear in the Financial Times. Who told the Financial Times that Miss Bowe had been cleared? I wracked my brains over that. When presented with a conundrum of that sort, I usually say, “Cui bono?”. Who benefitted from this thoroughly misleading report? It was not a question of exaggeration or a controversial interpretation. This Select Committee report could not conceivably be read without realising that criticism of Miss Bowe is in paragraph after paragraph. Cui bono? I consulted many friends: “Can you think of anyone other than Miss Bowe who might have got in touch with the Financial Times to tell it that she was cleared?”. I cannot. I cannot prove anything, but I have the greatest suspicion. I am afraid that there is a prominent public official in whom I have very little trust. That is a very sad thing to have to say.
I thoroughly endorse the Prime Minister’s determination that we should have the highest standards in every aspect of our public life that deals with the press. I shall be writing to the learned judge, drawing his attention to my remarks today and this article in the Independent, and asking him to take account of the need to consider the position of Miss Bowe. I might be asked why I have not previously raised this subject. The answer is quite simple: it is only very recently that I realised that Ofcom had responsibility not only for such things as wavebands, who owns which television station and so on, but for passing judgment on the moral fibre of people who own parts of the media. I apologise; I did not know that and it changes things. Miss Bowe is in charge of the public body that has had that responsibility given to it.
I shall quote briefly from page 7 of this morning’s Daily Telegraph—a story by Mr John Bingham about Rupert Murdoch’s daughter’s “attack on Rebekah Brooks”. I wholly endorse the message sent by the Deputy Prime Minister—I am surprised to find myself saying that, but I do—to Miss Wade or Mrs Brooks; I do not know which name she goes by these days. He said that she should do the decent thing and step down. The story says that last night,
“Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, News Corp’s second largest shareholder, said Mrs Brooks should resign”,
if her involvement in the phone hacking scandal was explicit. He then told BBC’s “Newsnight”:
“I will not accept to deal with a company that has a lady or a man that has any sliver of doubts on her or his integrity”.
I do not see why the British public should be called on to expect lower standards from their public servants than this noble prince expects from the staff of News International.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not only on securing this debate but on the campaign that he has waged for such a long time on press responsibility and accountability. I have three interests to declare. First, I was chairman of the Guardian for 10 years. I am hugely proud of the work that Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger have done in exposing what has allegedly happened at News International, particularly against the opposition of many others in the media, including the Press Complaints Commission. Secondly, I have worked with Mr Jeremy Darroch, the chief executive of BSkyB. I will come to that subject in a moment. Thirdly, I have met Mr Rupert Murdoch only once in my life. That was in 1990 when he came to me in the City, desperate to raise additional funds as he had almost landed News Corp on the rocks as a result of foolhardy financing strategies. I did not save him by providing more money but others did.
I have very little to add to the general debate to which noble Lords have already contributed. Proper process will now be followed here in the United Kingdom and elsewhere to investigate questions of criminality, morality and probity. Your Lordships’ House has adopted the right moderate tone today. However, I cannot avoid noting that the Prime Minister and the Government vacillated on many issues to do with News International at every critical decision moment and had to be dragged to the right decision when it was so obvious that there was no alternative, rather than providing the leadership that we might have expected. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport bent over backwards to do everything he possibly could to facilitate the acquisition of BSkyB by News International. He took every possible action to ensure that the matter did not go to the Competition Commission but rather negotiated in private with the Murdochs and with News International. That was clearly a very poor judgment by the Secretary of State.
I was going to say that I was sad that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, was not in her place. She then appeared in her place and she has now again departed from her place. I think she might follow that same chain of events in terms of the chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission because it is clear that the Press Complaints Commission, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said, needs a completely fresh start with a new vigour and intention, which is clearly not there. I felt for the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, when I watched her being interviewed by Mr Andrew Neil on BBC television, but it was clear that the Press Complaints Commission has become an apologist for the newspaper industry rather than a vibrant and independent body performing the role that we would expect. I am afraid that the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, must fall on her sword if the Press Complaints Commission is to be given a fresh start.
Other things need to be done. The Communications Act 2003 is clearly, with hindsight, deficient: the public interest test is too narrow, as are the restrictions placed on cross-media ownership. That Act did not anticipate the advent of digital media and consequently it needs to be revisited as soon as possible. In the mean time, Ofcom needs to look seriously at the fit and proper test, and in particular to articulate the criteria and processes that will be applied in the future in exercising “fit and proper” as a test because there is a lack of specificity and clarity. We also need to address the issue of privacy. We are reminded at this time of the importance of ensuring that the BBC continues to be properly funded in order to provide an independent and reliable source of information and comment.
I want to focus on corporate governance. The governance of News Corp, an American company, is not a matter of great concern to this House. The company is run on hereditary principles and is controlled by the Murdoch family, even though they have a modest equity interest in the business as a result of the use of shares with super-voting rights. The board of News Corp has clearly been very ineffective. However, I want to turn our attention to the board of BSkyB, a company in which News Corp has a 39 per cent equity interest. This company is chaired by Mr James Murdoch. A significant number of the directors on the board of BSkyB are related to News Corp or do not pass the test of independence as defined by the Financial Reporting Council’s governance code. Mr DeVoe, Mr Evans, Mr Mockridge and Mr Siskind have all previously worked for News International while Mr Leighton and Mr Nasser are judged not to be independent by length of service. Clearly, the proportion of BSkyB board directors represented by those who speak for, or are sympathetic to, the interests of News International is disproportionate to the equity ownership that News Corp and News International have in that company. BSkyB will announce its profit figures on 29 July. I urge the board of BSkyB to reflect over the next fortnight on the governance of that company as a matter of priority and—this is important—to consult with other shareholders.
BSkyB’s corporate governance page on its website talks about all the normal committees that you would expect there to be in a public company—the Audit Committee, the Nominations Committee and the Remuneration Committee. It also has a committee that I have never seen before—the Bigger Picture Committee. It is not entirely clear what the Bigger Picture Committee does but it is pretty clear what the Bigger Picture Committee should now be doing. All directors of BSkyB, in accordance with best advice from the Financial Reporting Council, should stand for re-election at the annual general meeting this summer, including Mr James Murdoch. The board should seek to persuade Mr Murdoch that it is no longer appropriate for him to chair this company. There are sufficient doubts about his business judgment. His investments in MySpace and AP Dow Jones, the large loss consequent on the investment in ITV, and the settlements that he now admits he entered into without fully understanding the facts, are surely all reasons why it is no longer appropriate for Mr James Murdoch to chair BSkyB. There is, fortunately, an excellent alternative in Mr Nicholas Ferguson, the senior independent director of BSkyB, who is a man of great integrity and wisdom. I should add that Mr James Murdoch intends to move to New York, which makes it even more difficult to believe that he is the right person to chair a British broadcaster.
The shareholders of BSkyB other than News Corp hold 60 per cent of the voting rights. It is within their power to secure these changes and ensure that in future News Corp’s representation on the board of BSkyB is proportionate, but not so great that it can dominate the board of directors. It is important that BSkyB in these circumstances establishes an appropriate distance from News Corp as a shareholder. Fortunately, at last year’s annual general meeting, a number of major institutional investors did vote against Mr James Murdoch’s re-election as a director—Aviva, Baillie Gifford, Legal & General, and Co-operative Asset Management. I hope that they will again be given the opportunity to vote on Mr Murdoch and will again conclude that they should vote against his re-election; and I hope that others will join them. One of the things that we learnt from the banking crisis was that the failure of boards was at the heart of what went wrong in those companies, and the failure of shareholders who look after our savings and our pensions properly to engage was one of the great deficiencies. There is an opportunity here for the great investment institutions of Edinburgh, London and New York to show that they have had enough with the way that the Murdochs dominate BSkyB and they should ensure that the company has an independent board of directors and a truly independent chairman.
My Lords, I am grateful for this unexpected opportunity to speak. I, like others in my position, consulted the Government Whips’ Office and was given the same advice. However, I was very grateful for that advice. I have found the Government Whips’ Office to be invariably helpful, supportive and extremely invaluable to a novice such as me in your Lordships’ House. It was my judgment that proceedings on the Live Music Bill would continue for rather longer than they did, and I can only apologise to the House that I was not here at the beginning—and particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for missing his speech. I am grateful for this opportunity and I will try to keep my remarks as brief as possible. In any event, a lot of the ground that I would have covered in the rather longer speech that had I prepared earlier has already been covered by other noble Lords—rather better than I would have done. In any event, the Leveson inquiry will also cover a lot of these matters.
Some commentators have suggested that this issue is of concern only to the Westminster village. To those commentators I suggest that they read the book, Flat Earth News, by Nick Davies, who has been mentioned many times, having played such an important part in uncovering this scandal. In the book, which is an invaluable primer for anyone who is concerned about the degeneration of our print media, he ends with this quote from the legendary editor Joseph Pulitzer, who said:
“A cynical, mercenary, demagogic, corrupt press will produce in time a people as base as itself”.
We have been warned. That is all the more reason to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not only on securing this debate but for his indomitable pursuit of these issues in times when this was not as popular a cause as it has now become.
For all the shock of the recent revelations, I hope that as we proceed we will never forget that not all journalists are bad or behave badly. There are many decent, honourable professionals who do not break the law, who make fair-minded judgments and who respect the truth and the ethics of their profession.
We should be wary of any further statutory interference with the freedom of the press. For all the problems that we have heard about today and elsewhere, a free and plural press is one of the most fundamental guarantors of our liberties and we interfere with it at our peril. I hope that the Government will think carefully before they rush into any law on privacy. The current arrangements allow the courts to balance Articles 8 and 10 under the Human Rights Act. It is a flexible, pragmatic arrangement to balance the sometimes conflicting imperatives of freedom of expression and privacy. That arrangement is not demonstrably the worst option, and it should, in my view, be left alone longer to see how it works before rushing into any new legislation, with all the risks of unintended consequences, particularly in the current climate.
That does not undermine the case for greater regulation, not least because few have the resources to seek redress in the courts. Self-regulation has manifestly failed. That is not necessarily a criticism of those who have given exemplary public service by serving on the regulator; it is just a sad fact. I hope that, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said, the Government will give due consideration to a thorough revamp. We need better regulation—and not self-regulation. Every time that any Government have even whispered about tightening regulation, the press has reacted vigorously with dire warnings of threats to investigative journalism. That is self-interested nonsense.
Broadcast television is tightly regulated. With all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Grade, who once employed me—although I was far too insignificant for him to be aware of that fact—and what he said about the difference between press and broadcast regulation, broadcasting, in pursuing investigations, is tightly regulated and circumscribed. In my view, that has not prevented it doing a far better job than the print media in holding the powerful to account. There are, of course, honourable exceptions, such as Nick Davies, but where in the print media do we find exposures such as “Panorama” provided recently on abuse in care homes? There has been a whole series of undercover investigations by the Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme. There is no reason to think that better, tighter regulation of the press will in any way hamper freedom of speech.
I conclude with a plea to the Government. Whatever emerges from the Leveson inquiry, whatever recommendations are pursued, they must be properly resourced. There is no point proclaiming the objective without willing the means. The Information Commissioner’s Office, which did such an excellent and courageous job under Richard Thomas and his successor, Chris Graham, in revealing the extent of breaches of the Data Protection Act, needs to be properly resourced. The previous Government, in difficult economic circumstances, found the means to give that office extra resources. I hope that this Government will do so. I hope that the revamped Press Complaints Commission will also be properly resourced. We have an opportunity to change the culture of our media and our politics for the better. I hope that we now take it.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the House for allowing me to contribute briefly to the debate in the gap. I say in my defence that I have been here from the beginning and have heard all of the debate, including my noble friend's remarks.
I shall focus on the future structure of regulation of the press. My career has been in the City, and I began under a self-regulatory regime. The arguments in favour of self-regulation were that it was quick, flexible and there was a community of interest in maintaining high standards and therefore the rotten apples would be thrown out. In contrast, the argument went, a statutory regime would be slow, the cops would have to catch up with the robbers, and it would shackle the City and impose a competitive disadvantage. Some echoes of those arguments are present in our discussion of future press regulation. Over 15 years, it became clear that self-regulation did not, and perhaps could not, command public confidence. “Letting off one’s friends over lunch” was the phrase used by the self-regulatory regime. Over 15 years we had to move in two stages to the full statutory financial services and markets regime of the 2000 Act.
Therefore, I hope that Lord Justice Leveson will look at these developments, for I have to agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, that it is surely not beyond the wit of man to devise a statutory framework that carries within it the necessary safeguards for press freedom. I hope that Lord Justice Leveson will also look at qualitative aspects. Would I be alone in thinking that some of the problems in press reporting in recent years have arisen because licence has increasingly masqueraded as liberty, prurience has increasingly masqueraded as public interest and personal prejudice has increasingly masqueraded as fact? These are big issues and difficult lines to draw but they are surely worth detailed discussion and debate in the months ahead.
Finally, this issue is very widespread. I absolutely understand and share the revulsion about the Murdoch empire and the News Corporation activities, but today’s Times carries an obituary for one Peter Dunne, a photographer who,
“famously snapped Emperor Hirohito in civilian clothes and covered the Troubles in Ulster”.
The obituary runs:
“Dunne was … quiet and faultlessly professional. His ability to remain clam under pressure may have been inherited. His great-grandfather fought at Waterloo … For all his understated elegance and good manners, though, Dunne did not lack the rat-like cunning his business demands. At crime scenes, he trained reporters to lift ‘Do Not Cross’ police tapes”, and usher him onwards with a ‘Through you go, sir’. ‘Thank you, sergeant,’ he would reply. He carried a clerical dog collar with him at all times, slipping it on to acquire the aura of impeccable respectability needed to gain access to people and places where the press was not welcome”.
Today of all days, I ask myself whether this is the sort of behaviour that we should be admiring.
My Lords, this has been a good and very important debate. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, very much captured the mood of the House, and I take this opportunity to applaud him for his courage and fortitude. My noble friend Lord Prescott and he make a formidable and winning pair. Their alignment is such that anyone—indeed, everyone—should have expected that their success would be assured. In this House, principle brings political opponents together, and long may it be so.
I also commend my noble friend Lady Royall for her salient remarks. I think that in what she said about decency and propriety she spoke for all of us. There was an echo around this House and many nodding heads, as I see now.
For those who thought that this debate might, following the debate in the other place, show this House as being behind the curve of events, the continuing developments at News International only this morning demonstrate clearly that that is not the case.
In such a press of events, it is easy and tempting to be dazzled by the day’s headlines—easy but wrong. This whole set of events—this whole combination of circumstances—is such that we need to stand back, think and consider the end that we aspire to achieve and to work out what we now need to do. In this, we are enormously helped by the establishment of a full, proper and thorough inquiry into the whole matter, and helped still further by the very welcome appointment of Lord Justice Leveson to head it.
Lord Justice Leveson is a fine lawyer and will bring to the inquiry all his considerable wisdom and judgment. I believe that it could not be in safer or better hands. He will, I am sure, have the ability to set the procedure for the inquiry, and I am sure, too, that he will give proper consideration to the comments made so well by my noble friend Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. He will have an opportunity to invite both the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General to consider what proper orders may be made if he should so need them. I very much hope that in coming to his deliberations he will have an opportunity to read this debate.
The range of issues before the inquiry is enormous, from the conduct of journalists at the News of the World, with criminal investigations and prosecutions which may now follow, together with the issues around the complex subject of media regulation. However, I have to share with your Lordships one slight anxiety. As your Lordships will know, it is only once the chair and the full terms of reference are published that Section 35 of the Inquiries Act 2005 comes into immediate effect. Thereafter, anyone who destroys, alters or otherwise interferes with evidence which may be needed or relied on by the inquiry to determine the truth of the matters entrusted to its examination, commits a criminal offence.
The ambit of the inquiry that the Prime Minister has rightly indicated in the draft and announced, is wider. It is not limited to the acts and omissions of News International but will apply more broadly and may include not only the examination of the acts of other newspapers but may extend to documents held by others, including e-mails and papers held by the Government and elsewhere. Therefore, it is essential for the protection of that information and evidence that the terms of reference should be published without further delay so that the inquiry, when it is constituted, can receive the proper information.
Although this is a significant debate, it may be neither the time nor the place to range into the minutiae of the steps that we may take. However, I wonder whether your Lordships would allow me to scope out some of the things that we may consider.
The noble Lord, Lord Glasman, in his most moving speech, mentioned David and Goliath. Your Lordships will know that David needed faith, a good aim and the right stone—well shaped, perfectly weighted and balanced. The stone on this occasion was the rule of law. There are those who believe that the writ of the rule of law should not run and that if you have power, wealth and influence you can avoid the law, Parliament and regulation and be free from the burden of acting fairly, decently and in accordance with good manners. I hope that when considering what has happened in the past 10 days those who have hitherto held that view will know that they need to think again. The law is what we in this House use to set the proper boundaries, and I hope that we will take that opportunity now. We can, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and my noble friend Lord Prescott made clear, take this opportunity and put it to good use.
What have we learnt about the legal process that we now have? We have learnt that the test of fitness needs to run throughout the process and that we must make it plain that if bad faith is shown and assessments are made on the basis of gross misrepresentations, those who make those misrepresentations will have the decisions that have been made in their favour vitiated. No one in this House believes that if the then Secretary of State, Dr Cable, knew what we now know of the facts, he would even for a moment have limited the European notice to simply plurality. The matter is worrying because the current Enterprise Act is predicated on good faith. It is why the Act provides that the Secretary of State has only one bite of the cherry if a European intervention notice is to be served. The Secretary of State of the day is put to his or her election when drafting the notice and has to identify the basis on which a merger should be tested, plurality and broadcasting standards being set out in Section 58.
What, however, of the general public interest? What of good faith? What of the fitness of the person? Only one notice can be issued and the parameters of that notice then shape—some would say irrevocably—the ambit of the inquiry that can therefore be made of the proponents who support the bid—for Ofcom, the OFT, the Competition Commission and the Secretary of State. So I am sure that had Rupert Murdoch not withdrawn his bid, it would have been trenchantly argued that the notice which was issued by the Secretary of State on 4 November could not be amended, and that only plurality—only plurality—would be the test applied as to whether this bid failed or succeeded. The News of the World, having been closed, the question that must arise is: what would be the consequence of that act on plurality?
It has taught us a very important lesson because it has disclosed what I suggest to your Lordships may be a terrible flaw. These recent allegations and revelations should make us think again about the whole process. If no new notice could have been issued, where would we be? I believe that we would have still been able to rely on equity, on the common law which says that he who comes to equity must come with clean hands, and that you cannot take adventitious advantage of your own bad faith to secure for yourself a good. But that would have had to have been argued; it would not necessarily have been the process as a matter of right. Surely we must take an urgent opportunity to fill that gap and fill it quickly. We have to ensure that those who are entrusted with our media are fit and proper persons to do that, and we have to look at how we can craft legislation for that purpose. I very much endorse all that was said by my noble friend Lord Myners in that regard. We now have to consider how to toughen broadcasting standards. We have to look at corporate governance, not just at criminal conduct. We need a proper debate on the concentration of media power being in too few hands, and therefore we greatly welcome the inclusion of this issue in the inquiry’s draft terms of reference.
It is clear that the powers of the PCC are simply insufficient and that a more robust process, and a different form of independent regulation, now needs to be considered. What was said by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, merits more careful scrutiny, supported as she was so ably by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, my noble friend Lord Soley and others. It is clear that whatever form this new regulation takes, it must have teeth and be capable of holding those who transgress to account. It must be able to bring them quickly to book.
We need transparency. I was very taken with the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Doocey, that there should be a requirement that contact with journalists should be recorded. I was very impressed by what the Prime Minister said when he called for a new form of total transparency. Perhaps the noble Baroness will say whether her right honourable friends the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and the Prime Minister, would publish a record of all their meetings—personal, professional and social—with James and Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks, as my right honourable friend the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, and the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, have suggested that they are willing to do.
I very much agree that this challenge is bigger than party politics. We must join together to do everything we can to restore confidence. The new mood of comity is important and needs to be maintained. I was saddened by the few elements of party politics that touched at least one speech, but I am sure that on mature reflection it will be seen that our comity needs to be maintained. We have a chance, as others have said, to use this terrible set of events as an opportunity to cure the flaws that the allegations and revelations have disclosed. I hope that the noble Baroness will be able to assure us that the gaps we have identified in the debate, which have been highlighted so carefully and cogently, will be addressed quickly so that we can make it far more difficult for those who would abuse our system with impunity to do so in future.
These issues would all benefit from harder and longer thought. None of us envies the job taken on by Lord Justice Leveson, who will have to consider all these and similar issues. It is of real importance that the work be done fully, thoroughly and comprehensively. We on these Benches are confident that the inquiry will do that. The twists and turns of events in this matter—no doubt there are many more to come—mean that the inquiry has an enormously difficult task. However, for the future of the media in this country—I join all those who applauded the brilliant journalists we have, who will also have been distraught at seeing their profession so besmirched—of politics, of the police and of justice, we need to find a way forward. We believe that the Leveson inquiry will help us to secure that.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for securing this debate and I commend his persistence. We should all be delighted that he resisted the temptation to jump in the Thames.
The debate is self-evidently timely. Events have moved so quickly over the past few days, with dramatic developments even today, that perhaps we should have installed rolling news in the Chamber. However, it is useful to have the opportunity to pause and take stock of where we are. The many learned, passionate and—sad to say—sometimes personal contributions we have heard today leave no one in no doubt about the strength of feeling in this House on the way that it has become apparent that the News of the World behaved. As the Prime Minister said on Wednesday, the whole country has been shocked by the revelations about phone hacking. As they became more detailed, numerous and shocking, it became clear that a fully independent, public inquiry would be the only way to set about tackling these issues with the depth, seriousness and integrity required. This is why the Prime Minister set out details of the public inquiry that will look at all these issues. The inquiry must be robust, and it must command public confidence. Its aim must be to get to the truth and it must begin its work quickly.
We have to acknowledge that there are difficulties around conducting a public inquiry when live criminal investigations are under way, and for that reason the inquiry will be divided into two parts, as noble Lords have already mentioned. Part 2 of that inquiry will be a full investigation into wrongdoing in the press and the police, including the failure of the first police investigation, because I think we are all agreed that that investigation failed. I can reassure noble Lords that the situation is far too important for the inquiry to be kicked into the long grass.
There are other matters that can be considered without being hampered by ongoing criminal investigations, and these matters will form part 1 of the inquiry. As noble Lords will all now know, it will be led by Lord Justice Leveson, one of the most senior and well respected judges in the country. The inquiry will be set up under the terms of the Inquiries Act 2005, which means that it has the power to compel witnesses to appear and to give evidence under oath and in public.
We want work to begin as soon as possible, but there are a number of practical and logistical matters that we are helping Lord Justice Leveson to finalise at the moment. Of course, and this is a key point, how the inquiry itself is run, who it hears from and who it seeks advice from are entirely matters for Lord Justice Leveson. As soon as the practical matters are settled, Lord Justice Leveson and his panel will look into: the culture, practices and ethics of the press; their relationship with the police; the extent to which the current policy and regulatory framework has failed; and the extent to which there was a failure to act on previous warnings about media misconduct. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, asked who guards the guardians, and that echoes exactly the phrase that Lord Justice Leveson has said will be at the heart of his inquiry. He and the panel will also make recommendations for a new, more effective policy and regulatory regime that supports the integrity and freedom of the press, the plurality of the media and its independence from government while encouraging the highest ethical and professional standards.
In that first stage, will the inquiry also investigate the role of telecommunications companies that may have divulged information to the police and, in turn, the media without going through the appropriate procedures?
My understanding is that Lord Justice Leveson will have the capacity to make that part of the inquiry. If I am wrong on that, I will come back to the noble Baroness.
There will also be recommendations on how future concerns about press behaviour, media policy, regulation and cross-media ownership should be dealt with by all the relevant authorities whether that is Parliament, government, the prosecuting authorities or the police.
The Deputy Prime Minister recently clearly set out the three guiding principles for future reform—my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, is yes. First, the freedom of the press is vital and that liberty and democracy are founded on freedom of expression. We have heard from all sides of the Chamber today how important your Lordships feel that freedom of expression and the freedom of the press are. Secondly, our media must be held to account ensuring they act within the bounds of the law and decent behaviour, with politicians and police equally accountable for their role. Thirdly, our free, accountable press must be plural, guaranteeing healthy competition and diverse debate. We have had inputs in the debate today from so many noble Lords who have first-hand experience of the press, all of whom made valuable contributions to the matters under discussion.
I now turn to BSkyB. As we know, News Corporation has withdrawn its bid to purchase the remaining 61 per cent of shares in BSkyB which it does not already own. This is a decision taken by News Corporation but, of course, it will have been aware of the strength of concern from both Parliament and the public about the bid and the circumstances surrounding it.
I want to make the point that the Culture Secretary has at all times sought and followed advice from the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom, the independent and expert regulators. He has been as transparent as possible, publishing much more than required to do so by legislation and ensuring that he acted within the law. But of course I take note of the comments made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, in connection with that.
The future for News International in the UK is a matter for News International. The nature of our press at the moment is that anyone can start or run a newspaper and we do not impose any licensing scheme. This freedom means that, as well as our national newspapers, we have a great many smaller and more eccentric publications. We welcome the partisan approach that newspapers take but the key point for every publication—no matter how big or small—is that it must abide by the law of the land. We expect our newspapers to be truthful, not to mislead us and to observe standards of decent behaviour. The inquiry that is now under way will look at ways of ensuring that newspapers do that in future. Once again, as various noble Lords have reminded us, most journalists and people who work on newspapers are honourable and professional.
It has been disturbing to hear of the involvement of the police and we have heard some extraordinary things from the Met this week. We have had inputs from my noble friend Lady Doocey, the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, and others who have spoken about police involvement. Again, I echo their words of support for the courage and professionalism of the vast majority of people who work in the police force. We understand that the media and the police need to have a good working relationship. It is, for the most part, a mutually beneficial relationship but allegations have been made during this scandal that some corrupt police officers may have taken payments from newspapers in exchange for access to privileged information. These allegations have undermined that relationship, fractured public trust and led to a belief that that relationship can be too close.
The Metropolitan Police are as determined as we are that these police officers should be identified and referred to a fully independent investigation that will be convened by the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Additionally, the Home Secretary has commissioned a report from the Independent Police Complaints Commission on its experience of investigating corruption in the police service which will identify what lessons the police can learn through this affair.
The Prime Minister also reported on Wednesday that Sir Paul Stephenson is looking to invite a senior public figure to advise him on interaction with the media and the ethics that should underpin his force, including advising on how to ensure maximum transparency and public confidence, and how arrangements are working. We understand that the commissioner has committed to putting in place a system of recording and making available to the public the contacts of Metropolitan Police officers with journalists.
It is clear that the press will be under closer scrutiny than ever before, and we heartily welcome the inquiry led by Lord Leveson and wish him well as he begins his work. We would advise him, as my noble friend Lord Fowler has said, to use the great expertise in this House, including that which we have heard today in this debate.
Picking up on one or two points from the debate, as we came into the Chamber, the breaking news was of the resignation of Rebekah Brooks. Obviously, that is a matter for her and for News International but we do not see any reason why her resignation should interfere with her co-operation with next week’s culture Select Committee, the forthcoming inquiry or with ongoing police investigations.
The noble Lord, Lord Prescott, referred to the Metropolitan Police’s employment of Neil Wallis who was arrested yesterday. The Home Secretary is concerned about his employment and she is looking into the facts of that case. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, referred to privacy. A joint parliamentary committee is being set up to look at the issues that came out of the debate on super-injunctions and privacy. How that committee will work with the inquiry by Lord Leveson is a matter for them but it is an issue that has been taken up and action is being taken.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, asked what is to happen while we wait for the outcome of the inquiry. The PCC is still in place, of course, and we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Grade, about its valuable work. However, we have also heard of other aspects from other noble Lords. The press is certainly aware of the much closer public scrutiny that it will now be undergoing, so we hope that, together, they will influence moves towards a more honourable press.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned the inquiry being conducted by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers and expressed concerns about the level of resources it would receive. We understand that it is for the commissioner to decide the level of resources, but the Prime Minister has been personally assured by the commissioner that the investigation is fully resourced and that it will be thorough and robust. We understand that currently around 45 officers and staff have been assigned to it.
The noble Lord, Lord Myners, asked whether the Communications Act 2003 will be revisited. I can assure him that work is already under way and that new legislation will be brought forward in the future.
This has been an intense and rich debate, but if I have overlooked any questions or matters for reply, I apologise. I shall certainly endeavour to write to noble Lords—
Perhaps I may ask one question before the noble Baroness reverts to her prepared text. I think that only one question was directly addressed to the Minister in the whole debate, and that was from my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland. It was about the future recording of contacts between Ministers and the press. Does the Minister agree that it was most unwise of the Prime Minister to accept hospitality and gifts from Ms Brooks over Christmas when one of his colleagues was involved in a judicial review of her employer? Does she also agree that the holding of a meeting in a flat above No. 10 does not render it a meeting that should not be recorded because it was held on private premises? Does she further agree that, in future, the Government need to be much more open about their own contacts with the press?
My Lords, at this stage I would not wish to comment on the particular issues that the noble Lord has raised, but I can assure him that government Ministers have now all been asked to log their contacts with the media. That is ongoing, so for the future that should all be in place. If there is anything more to add, I shall write to noble Lords. I must apologise, as I am clutching a piece of paper to reply to this point. It would have been extremely remiss of me to sit down having left the question unanswered. Again, I apologise.
I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate. It has been in the best traditions of your Lordships’ House. It was considered, incisive, informed and passionate, and the contributions have added a great deal to the national debate. All sides of the House have expressed the will to work together in this instance with, as the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, singleness of purpose. That message was echoed by her colleague, the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland. All sides would wish that to be the case because we all have much to gain from the resolution of the unhappy matters that have been going on recently.
My final thanks add to those made to my noble friend Lord Fowler for bringing this debate about. We wish him every success in his continued endeavours.
On the inquiry that we have been talking about today, and which everyone welcomes, presumably many people will be called before it. Will they receive legal aid in such circumstances?
I am afraid I cannot give the noble Lord a definitive answer, so I shall have to write to him.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, and then there was a significant pause. I thought she was going to say that since then there had been another development, but apparently not. However, we had better stop before there is.
Outstanding and powerful speeches have been made in this debate, thus establishing my point that there is great experience in this House, direct experience of the media and experience of much more, although the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, and I will have to get back to our usual hostilities on some simple party political issue such as the future of the health service—there are quite a lot of others.
I do not intend to try to sum up every speech but simply refer to some common themes that have run through them. One is certainly the position of the Press Complaints Commission, where I think there is virtually unanimous agreement that reform is urgently required. An effective and independent mechanism is needed, a stronger commission, a commission that must have teeth, and a commission where journalists have a fear of the consequences if they transgress the code of that commission. That is not the case at the moment and almost self-evidently has not been. Whether it should be statutory is another question which the inquiry will have to examine carefully and which will continue to be discussed outside this Chamber, not least on our Back Benches.
A second theme was the relations between press and politicians and Ministers. Again, I think there is agreement on all sides that there must be more separation. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, did not like my phrase “clear water”, but I think he would agree that relations must be on a better and more proper basis than we have seen in the time that he and I have been in Parliament. The relations have been too close, which, apart from anything else, is demeaning for politicians.
Thirdly, there has been overwhelming agreement that we must simply clean up the undoubted illegality which has taken place and prevent the insupportable intrusions that have been quite unjustifiably made into our private lives. The noble Lord, Lord Imbert, joked that policemen who are unsuitable for the service might find a career in journalism. I have to point to the report of the Information Commissioner, which stated:
“The cases already raised give us some idea about the companies and individuals who actually obtain the data unlawfully”.
The noble Lord wishes to intervene, but I have not given him the full quote yet.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and to those many honest journalists that we have in this country. It was unseemly of me to have made that comment, but I frankly just could not resist it. However, I apologise to those honest and determined journalists, many of whom I admire.
That is very kind, and I am sure that journalists around the country will be very grateful for that. If I may speak on behalf of my former profession, I think we regarded his comment as a joke and not a bad one at that, so I do not think that any apologies are necessary.
The Information Commissioner went on to say that the unlawful acts are almost invariably committed by parts of the private investigation industry, including private detectives, many of whom—I regret to tell the noble Lord this—are ex-police officers. So there may be some way to go. In pointing that out, I do not mean to get back at the police service simply because I used to be a journalist. However, I think we can all agree—this was another theme which came out of the debate—that it is absolutely in no one’s interest that the police should be in bad regard and that relations with the police are of the utmost importance in this country.
The fourth theme, which came out of a number of speeches, particularly at the end of the debate and from the speech of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, was that we need to revisit the public interest test and, frankly, all the legislation in this area, not least the Communications Act 2003. That would be to the benefit of everyone concerned.
Our aim in all this must be to preserve and strengthen the public interest. As the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, said, we now have a real opportunity to get things right. I agree with that entirely. I also agree with the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, that we will be judged by how we do that. We must not fail that test.
That is the challenge, a challenge that is recognised on all sides of the House. I very much hope that we can keep this bipartisan approach to finding solutions together. If we can do that, it will be far more effective and far more in the public interest. With that, I beg to move.
House adjourned at 3.21 pm.