House of Lords
Friday, 11 January 2013.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Norwich.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, I will take very little time because I am sure that noble Lords will want to get on with the very important business of today. As noble Lords are already aware, today’s debate is not time-limited. However, as those who are listed on the speakers list will already have been informed by the Whips’ Office, noble Lords, with the exception of the movers and those making the winding speeches, might find it helpful if we offered some guidance.
As the Companion sets out, the expectation of this House is that those participating in a debate are here for both the opening and closing speeches. If we were to aim to rise today at around 5 pm, we have estimated that Back-Bench speeches of around seven minutes would get us to that rising time. I and my Whip colleagues will assist the House in arriving at that estimated time, but we will look for your Lordships’ co-operation in achieving that time as well.
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is a privilege to open this debate today. The response to Lord Justice Leveson’s report is a weighty moment for this Government and for this House. Within its 2,000 pages the report provides significant insights and recommendations, the result of nine months’ painstaking work, and we are most grateful to Lord Justice Leveson.
I know that many distinguished Peers have contributed both to the inquiry and to the wider debate, which has been shaped by their experiences and knowledge. We look forward to hearing their views today and in the days to come. I would first like to acknowledge some notable contributions. Among many others are, first, my noble friends Lord Hunt of Wirral and Lord Black of Brentwood, who were instrumental before the report’s publication in developing and presenting a new structure of self-regulation for the press. I look forward to hearing my noble friend Lord Hunt’s views today. Secondly, there is the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, who has been a highly respected contributor on issues of press and media freedom, and the noble Lord, Lord Soley, who has brought his wisdom and experience over many years to the debate on the subject of press regulation.
I am delighted to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Trees. I am sure that the whole House looks forward to his maiden speech today. I am grateful also to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who has the honour of responding to the many views, proposals and reflections that we will hear.
At the outset, it is vital to note that there is broad agreement on the principles espoused by the Leveson report. They are principles that all sides of the debate have accepted. I reiterate that it has never been about whether but how these principles are enacted. This is now the focus for the Government, as well as for the cross-party discussions, and I hope that today we in this House can continue and add to the debate with the wisdom and clarity of thought that has marked it so far.
The UK has a history of setting standards for democracy and press freedom in the world, but the current practices, culture and accountability of some parts of the British press have let us down badly and it is widely agreed that the status quo is no longer an option. We all agree that there must be significant change. We all agree that the abuses of the past must never be allowed to happen again, and that a new system of tough, independent self-regulation is needed urgently to ensure that this is so.
At the heart of all this lies our deep conviction that victims must be better protected. Their suffering in the past has been made significantly worse by the unacceptable levels of relentless press intrusion inflicted on them. We must have a new, independent self-regulatory body that can deliver: independence of appointments to and funding of that body; a standards code by which the press operates; a new arbitration service for victims submitting civil law claims; a fast and thorough complaints-handling mechanism for handling breaches of the press code of conduct; the power to demand apologies, designed to carry equal weight in their exposure to that of the transgression; and the power to levy fines.
I will now update the House on progress since Lord Justice Leveson’s report was published in November. The report contains detailed recommendations, and the Government continue to lead cross-party discussions to consider the best way to implement them. The latest of these talks took place just yesterday. In addition, there are ongoing discussions with stakeholder groups, including the press industry and the campaign group Hacked Off. The Government have been very clear that this process needs to be transparent and robust if it is to produce an effective solution, and to that end they are seeking a collaborative approach to achieving the principles outlined by the report.
Much attention has also been drawn to the function and nature of the body that Lord Justice Leveson recommended should recognise any new press self-regulator. We should remember that, however this recognition body is established, Lord Justice Leveson himself said,
“The goal must be a genuinely independent and effective self-regulatory system”.
He also notes very clearly in his report that,
“not a single witness has proposed that the Government or Parliament should themselves be involved in the regulation of the press”.
The gauntlet has been thrown down to the industry to develop a model of tough and independent self-regulation that fulfils the principles of Leveson. I believe that it has now picked up that gauntlet, and whatever it comes up with will need to meet the Leveson principles in order to gain recognition. We in this House must keep the pressure on it to ensure that such a model swiftly materialises. Delay would be unacceptable.
The Prime Minister has said that he does not believe that statutory legislation is necessary to achieve the principles outlined by Leveson. However, noble Lords should be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has been equally clear that if the industry does not deliver a tough new independent self-regulatory system, she will not shy away from going down the statutory legislation route. That would be the only option left.
As noble Lords will be aware, some work has already been done on a draft Bill, as well as on Bills drawn up by the Opposition, by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill and most recently by the campaign group Hacked Off. These Bills constitute one of several avenues being explored in the cross-party talks. However, the Culture Secretary is clear that she remains committed to a non-statutory route. As such, the cross-party talks are also exploring the idea of a royal charter as an alternative means of fulfilling the Leveson principles.
What progress has been made so far? There are some aspects within the report that the Government have been able to act swiftly on. First, on incentives and sanctions, a key question is how to encourage newspapers or media organisations to sign up to a new regulatory body. A range of options are being considered, both within and outside government; some would require government intervention while some would lie in the hands of any new self-regulator. A proposal that has gained momentum in recent weeks is the suggestion made by Lord Justice Leveson that a system of damages be instigated to punish the worst transgressions of the press. As incentives to sign up for the new scheme, membership would be a factor for the courts in considering whether to award exemplary damages and, if so, how much. This would always be at the discretion of the court. However, these issues are not black and white, and the Ministry of Justice continues to consider the proposals in depth.
Secondly, progress has been made on access to justice. Although this issue has not taken the centre ground, the report and the reaction to it have clearly highlighted widespread concerns about access to justice for litigants, particularly where they are of limited means. In response to this, the Government have already referred the question of how costs should work in defamation and privacy cases to the Civil Justice Council. It will report back in March, and it will be imperative that the conclusions of the Leveson report feed into its work. In the mean time, we have also announced that we will partially delay the reforms in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, so that conditional fee agreements will continue to be available in defamation and privacy cases.
Thirdly, I shall update noble Lords on the Leveson recommendations relating to the police and the press. The report addressed many issues of policing, which I have no doubt my noble friend Lord Taylor will refer to in his summing-up of the debate. The report makes a number of recommendations in relation to transparency and accountability. However, Lord Justice Leveson himself acknowledges that the landscape of policing is already changing, in part due to work undertaken by the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police Officers on behalf of the police. We should not forget the importance of this aspect of the report. The Home Secretary will report on all these measures to Parliament in the near future, and I know that she will take account of the Leveson principles when she does so.
Fourthly, data protection is another area of the report that the Prime Minister and the Culture Secretary identified as an issue warranting careful consideration immediately. There are serious issues at stake around questions of investigative journalism; they must not be brushed aside but should be given due weight and diligence in our consideration of them. Lord Justice Leveson makes a range of recommendations on both the role and powers of the Information Commissioner and the application of an amended Data Protection Act to the press. Within these suggestions there are fundamental issues at play. The balance between the competing rights to privacy and freedom of expression is not easy to strike. The Information Commissioner has already published his own response to the recommendations that are aimed at him. In doing so, he acknowledges that extending the scope of the Act to cover journalism is a matter that needs careful consideration, and that is precisely what the Government will do.
The concerns and issues that I have outlined are but some of the areas that noble Lords will wish to debate today. Much work remains to be done, and the extensive debate since the publication of the report is likely to continue. The Government will issue a full response to the report shortly. I am aware that there will be many and varied viewpoints in the Chamber today and that noble Lords will present their arguments with passion, eloquence, balance and wisdom. I look forward to hearing them, in order that this House might play an important role in securing the right path for the future.
The press plays a key role in our democracy. However, with that privilege comes considerable responsibility. There is much more that unites us than divides us on taking forward the Leveson recommendations. The outcome that we all aspire to see is a set of proposals that truly reflect the spirit of his report, putting in place a robust, independent self-regulatory system for the press that is capable both of protecting the public and of safeguarding freedom of expression. I beg to move.
My Lords, we welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue today, and thank the Minister for the clarity with which he has set out the Government’s position. As he has made clear, the implementation of Leveson is still the subject of detailed cross-party talks. We believe that this is the right way to proceed, provided that it is carried out in a spirit of transparency and participation. We also believe that it will provide some solace for the victims of press intrusion over the years if all parties can unite in responding comprehensively and speedily to the public desire for a settlement of this issue.
In recent years in this Chamber we have achieved a remarkable degree of consensus when debating the role of the media and the need for a free and fair press. I hope that we are able to achieve a similar degree of consensus in this timely debate today. If anyone can find a way through the challenges which Leveson has set us, your Lordships are well placed to do so.
Before I refer to the detail, I pay tribute to the work of Lord Justice Leveson, the rigour with which he conducted the inquiry, and the humanity with which he enabled victims of some appalling injustices to have a proper hearing for the first time. For many of the victims, it meant reliving the pain and the trauma of their abuse by the press, but they did so with enormous courage and determination. The stories that they told made many people feel moved, incredulous, appalled and very angry: people such as the McCanns, who were falsely accused of murdering their missing child; the parents of Milly Dowler, given the false hope that their daughter might still be alive; John Tulloch, a 7/7 bomb survivor, tricked into giving a misrepresented interview; Christopher Jeffries, falsely accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates; and the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, whose daughter Abigail has been pursued for stories following her tragic stabbing while out walking with her son.
The pictures that unfolded were not just about illegal acts such as phone hacking, but more underhand acts of deception, breaches of privacy and a “reckless disregard for accuracy” in pursuit of copy at any cost. As Leveson acknowledged, it was not just one rogue report. It was not even one rogue newspaper. The so-called “dark arts” appeared to be endemic across the sector. As a result, the report represents a chilling indictment of the routine practices of the press.
We should not forget that victims come in many different forms. While we heard some truly horrific stories from families such as the Dowlers and the McCanns, some in the press have also found it convenient to differentiate between private individuals, whose personal tragedy forced them into the limelight, and celebrities who were somehow all considered to be fair game. Are we really saying that for a newspaper to announce that it is Charlotte Church’s 16th birthday so her virginity is now available is acceptable? Or for Sienna Millar to be hounded by gangs of press photographers like a hunted animal? How low does journalism have to sink before someone intervenes?
The fact is that the Leveson inquiry should never have been necessary. The catalogue of incidents that were described and the many more that they represent, should never have been allowed to happen. It should not require a regulator to point out what minimum levels of decency and honesty should apply in press reporting. To most outside observers it is common sense. This is why there was widespread public anger at the revelations during the inquiry, and while they may not have read all 2,000 pages of the findings, most decent people know what is right and wrong and they now expect us to act. Unsurprisingly, 78% of the public, in the wake of the report, favours an independent press regulator backed by statute.
That brings me to the press response to the report. We welcome the fact that the press are now working on a Leveson-compliant regulator, but a new voluntary model will not be sufficient. The fact is that Leveson concluded that there have been far too many occasions when the press has acted as if its own voluntary code of practice simply did not exist, and he went on to describe the press behaviour at times as being “outrageous”. So we cannot go on as we have in the past, and the challenge now is to find a new model of independent self-regulation, guaranteed by law, in which the public and the victims can have confidence.
In the cross-party talks we have tabled our own proposals, the press freedom and trust Bill, which meets the fundamental criteria established by Leveson and reassures the victims that came forward that their courage was not in vain. Our Bill is being debated alongside the alternative proposals tabled by the Government and others including Hacked Off, which has provided a very effective voice for victims of press injustice. We are not wedded to our wording but offer it as a serious contribution to the debate.
Our Bill enshrines the right of a free press and ensures that politicians cannot meddle in content. On the contrary, it ensures that Parliament’s role is two steps removed from the independent regulator. It would ensure the free, irreverent, investigative press that is central to our democracy. It was, after all, the outstanding journalism of Nick Davies of the Guardian that brought the scandal of phone hacking to our attention in the first place.
Crucially, our proposals would ensure that there is a legal guarantee that the regulator will be effective and independent. This would be achieved by a recognition panel, composed of the Lord Chief Justice and other senior judges, tasked with verifying that an independent press standards trust—to which, substantially, the national press must subscribe—is undertaking the tasks to which it is committed. It also builds in major incentives for the press to join the standards trust through offering less liability to exemplary damages and court costs for trust members.
Our draft Bill meets the essential requirements of Leveson without being invasive or cumbersome. However, we are also continuing to consider the other proposals which have been tabled. However, we have some concerns about the Government’s proposal that the independent regulator be underpinned by a royal charter. We welcome the fact that this represents an acceptance of the need for a legal framework to underpin the role of the regulator, but have some doubts as to whether this is the best mechanism. For example, we are not convinced that it is right to bypass Parliament on an issue where fundamental individual rights are at stake. Also, it seems inappropriate to deploy the prestige of the monarch in a controversial role where intervention might be necessary. In addition, the monarch would be obliged to act under the advice of Ministers, placing too great a concentration of power in the hands of the Executive rather than Parliament.
Can the Minister explain the rationale for a royal charter? What precedents exist for a body with a regulatory function to have one? What are the views of the victims of press intrusion on this solution?
We also await the latest proposals for a voluntary code from the press with interest, but we take the view that without statutory underpinning, the press could drift away from agreed standards over time, as they have in the past. Unfortunately, the press have form on this, with promises made and broken: seven inquiries in less than 70 years, all resolved by a commitment to voluntary reform which latterly ended with the Press Complaints Commission being so embarrassingly ineffective that it announced its own abolition. So the time is right to put press standards on a firmer, long-term footing, underpinned by statute so that the public can have respect for the press again; a regime where potential victims can have access to meaningful and proportionate redress; where the press embrace a systematic approach to correcting errors; where the funding of content is transparent; and where the truth can be relied upon to underpin each story. We will measure any alternative proposals against these criteria.
It is crucial that we harness the current energy around the discussions to reach agreement within this month. We will continue, for example, to look in detail at the issues around the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, but this should not delay an agreement on the essential principles of a new regime. If the talks falter, we retain the political will to put the issue to a vote in the Commons. It is essential to proceed with the involvement and agreement of the victims who have made these issues come alive at Leveson. It is important that they have a seat at the table and a significant voice in determining the outcome. The Prime Minister also made it clear that their approval should be the ultimate test of any new mechanism, so could the Minister confirm that this continues to be the Government’s position? Can he explain to the House how the representatives of the victims will be consulted before any decision is made?
I said at the outset that I hoped that we could reach a consensus today. I hope that the consensus confirms our view that a new system of independent self-regulation, underpinned by statute, fulfils the prescription of Leveson and protects the potential victims of the future. On this basis, I look forward to the debate today.
My Lords, I join in commending Lord Justice Leveson for his very thorough report, and I start by repeating the words of my right honourable friend, the Deputy Prime Minister:
“In my view, there are two big liberal principles at play in this debate: on the one hand, the belief that a raucous and vigorous press is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy; on the other, the belief that the vulnerable, the innocent and the weak should be protected from powerful vested interests”.—[Official Report, 29/11/2012; col. 351.]
Many of your Lordships were here for the short debate on the day that the Leveson report was published and will remember the moving words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, about what she and her family experienced at the hands of the press after her daughter was paralysed as a result of a random stabbing. She is here today and I will obviously leave her to tell her story, but I would like to quote from her evidence to Lord Justice Leveson:
“(the) press intrusion was almost more traumatic than the attack itself … the police actually mounted a guard on each door of the hospital ward to protect her [daughter’s] privacy”.
She told the inquiry that the intrusion has continued over the years since but that when she complained to the Press Complaints Commission, it provided neither solace nor solution. Because the real problem with the PCC was never its code of conduct, which in many ways is admirable; it was its manifest inability to implement it. To quote Winston Churchill:
“A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny”.
I agree—of course I agree—but our press, not properly regulated, has been exercising tyranny.
The day the Leveson inquiry report was published, I was speaking to the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. She told me that she had agreed to appear on the “Today” programme but had decided to pull out because she was concerned that this might reopen press interest, which in her experience equalled unacceptable intrusion. This does not add up to being the guardian of the rights that free men and women rightly expect, as well as prize. We need and have always needed a regulatory regime that is independent of both the Government and the media and which —crucially—is about the regulation of process, not content. This is what Lord Justice Leveson proposes: a system of voluntary, independent self-regulation overseen by an independent board. As the judge himself says:
“This is not and cannot be characterised as statutory regulation of the press”;
and as the Statement said:
“This is a voluntary system, based on incentives, with a guarantee of proper standards. It is not illiberal state regulation”.—[Official Report, 29/11/12; col. 352.]
Lord Leveson wants the press to regulate itself. All he recommends is that another independent body—a “recognition body”—should be established in law to ensure that the self-regulatory element does not dilute or withdraw from any of the commitments it originally makes. As the report notes, in Ireland, a number of UK newspapers are members of the Irish press council, which is an example of similar light-touch statutory underpinning.
It has been suggested that using law will blur the line between politicians and the media. However, it is the current system of self-regulation that blurs that line. It is the current system that has allowed cosy relationships between political and media elites to arise in the first place. Let us not forget that of the five PCC chairs three were serving parliamentarians. Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals, far from allowing greater overlap, give us a chance to create a hard wall between politics and the press. What of the latest initiative from the PCC? The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, a politician, has appointed the noble Lord, Lord Smith, a politician, Sir Simon Jenkins, an ex-editor, alongside the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, as special advisers to help set up a new press regulator.
There is another aspect to this debate. I was a journalist for many years and I believe in British journalism. I believe in the integrity and professionalism of most of our journalists. I believe in the courage of many of our journalists. One of my greatest friends was Marie Colvin, who was killed in Homs in pursuit of speaking truth to power. One of the things that Leveson is trying to achieve is proper respect for the vast majority of journalists who want to get on with a vitally important job. Leveson seeks a proper environment for young, up-and-coming journalists to learn their trade. He seeks the sort of environment that I was lucky enough to experience at the BBC and an environment that allows established practitioners to be proud of what they do. The NUJ welcomes the report—it is the proprietors who do not.
Lord Justice Leveson’s report is a large one and of course there are elements that need further scrutiny. One area of concern, as my noble friend Lord Younger mentioned, is the proposed changes to the Data Protection Act and the role of the Information Commissioner. We would not wish to support any reforms that might have a detrimental effect on the vital democratic role of investigative journalism. Another concern is the failure to address the internet. As a liberal, I firmly believe in a free press that holds the powerful to account and that is not subject to political interference. However, a free press does not and cannot mean a press that is free to bully innocent people, free to abuse grieving families or free to force unethical work practices on its employees.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the cross-party talks that are taking place. We also welcome the publication of Labour’s Bill, of my noble friend Lord Lester’s Bill, of Hacked Off’s Bill as well as the Bill from the DCMS. Those are all important contributions to these talks. I take the opportunity to commend all that Hacked Off has done and continues to do in campaigning for change. Clearly there is more to be done to ensure a proportionate and workable outcome—an outcome which involves cross-party consensus and carries the confidence of the public. Our preference on these Benches is for a stand-alone Bill, and that is what we are working to achieve. We, along with Labour and the Conservatives, are considering all the different proposals. However, it is essential to get the outcome that Lord Justice Leveson has recommended. The worst thing that could happen is for nothing to happen at all.
My Lords, this is our first debate on an issue of constitutional importance since your Lordships’ House was spared the Government’s threat to our existence last year. At risk now, of course, is the future of a free and responsible press. I am grateful—as I know are many of your Lordships—to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, for agreeing to a full day's debate. It is a farewell gift that we appreciate from the former Leader of this House after his many years of distinguished service.
Whatever we think about the press, the Leveson report reminds us of a truth that good journalists never forget and bad ones have never learnt. It is that newspapers and the media are not a law unto themselves. They are not a separate estate of the realm with a licence to flout the rights of individuals and ride roughshod over basic standards of common decency. I believe that a free press is part of the fabric of our democracy. It is woven into the right to free speech. I do not want a tame press; I do not want a licensed press or press that can be pressured into dropping a legitimate story because it embarrasses people in high places. That does not mean that the rights of the media are unfettered. But rights must be exercised responsibly, and that requires judgment and experience—qualities unfortunately sometimes ignored in the chase for scoops and sensation.
To those who say that the press cannot be trusted to put its house in order, I say: it now has no choice. If that sounds like a threat to legislate, it is, and the press would be very foolish to ignore it. We will not need another inquiry if there are more scandals on the scale we have witnessed. Legislation will be inevitable. To those in the media who think that this will blow over, I say: think again. The victims of press malpractices have found their voice and rightly demand action, as we do. The media’s dirty tricks departments are no longer in the last chance saloon. They have been caught rolling in the gutter and must be cleared out, along with their methods.
Sadly, other institutions in our country that affect our lives far more than newspapers are in a similar position. I refer to banks, hospitals, care homes, the police and to Parliament itself—all have been in the firing line. Royal charters are no guarantee of invincibility, as the BBC knows to its cost. Regulatory authorities abound but the scandals in the City of London and the NHS evaded them. I doubt whether press legislation would fare any better. Wrongly used, it might even make matters worse.
I believe that we need a cultural revolution in the press and in the country. There is too much cynicism, too much dodging the line. Journalists must refuse to do what they know to be wrong without fear of the sack. Editors and chief executives in other businesses must monitor more closely the actions of those under them. Newspaper owners, broadcasting bosses and directors of our great companies must never again claim that they did not know what was going on, because it won’t wash any more.
Reforming the way in which newspapers are run is not enough. The media have darker alleyways where muggers savage people’s reputations without a shred of reliable evidence, as Lord McAlpine has shown. Mistaken judgments must be corrected before they get into print, on the air or on the web. There must be clear lines of editorial responsibility. Serious offences must be heavily punished, if necessary, by exemplary fines. Journalists must be better trained at a grass-roots level. The decline of local newspapers and the provincial press is a tragedy in this respect.
I understand that some of Leveson’s proposals have been accepted by editors but we have had broken promises before. I am not inclined to the view that the best way forward is through legislation but I am firm in the belief that swift, positive action by the press and the wider media is certainly needed to avoid it.
My Lords, the 2,000 pages of the Leveson report make the New Testament seem a lightweight document, at least in terms of bulk. But it is important to remember why the report came to be written: it was the consequence of national, moral outrage. Anyone who believes that Britain’s moral conscience is duller than it was might do well to reflect on our collective response to the phone hacking scandal. That conscience was animated when the victims of phone hacking were a murdered child and her family.
Public moral indignation may still prove to be enough to reshape our culture—about which the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was just speaking—especially when it is in defence of the weak. The worst revelations of the Leveson report show the casual and callous disregard of the feelings and well-being of the targets of sensational press stories, especially in relation to families who have experienced the murder or abduction of one of their members. Some elements of our national press have made the terrible suffering of such families almost unendurable.
In another age, there might have been calls for public acts of penitence. The sad thing is that there has been surprisingly little public repentance and a great deal of self-justification and lapses of memory. That alone should make us wary of the claims of editors that they can clean up their act without the independence of their regulator being guaranteed by statute or in some other way. Let us remember that we are debating this at all only because there is a deep instinct in the people of our nation that the weak should be protected from the powerful and the invasion of family privacy should not be an inevitable consequence of family tragedy. That is something to be celebrated.
Our newspapers have been very good at defending themselves from independent statutory regulation while calling for it in almost every other walk of life. We need a fully independent body which is able to investigate the practices of the press without the trigger of a complaint bringing it into action. To ensure that the independence of such a body is guaranteed by statute is a long way from state control of the press.
While all that is very important, it is a pity that the debate following the Leveson report has been so narrowly focused on this one matter. So much else in the report has failed to gain sufficient attention; for example, legal protection for journalists who become whistleblowers when asked to do things against their conscience and against any existing code of practice.
It has been noticeable, too, that our national newspapers have given very little coverage to the very different judgment on ethics and culture that the Leveson report makes about regional and local newspapers, which, of course, is hardly surprising. Lord Justice Leveson says that local and regional newspapers are “truly without parallel” in their contribution to community life, which is an astounding statement. He states:
“It is clear to me that local, high-quality and trusted newspapers are good for our communities, our identity and our democracy and play an important social role”.
He calls for urgent action by the Government to safeguard the future of regional newspapers suffering because of the declines in advertising revenue that they have faced in recent years. But he does not specify what action this should be and in this he shares the general perplexity about finding a new funding model for institutions of such social worth.
Occasionally, local newspapers have been accused of being too close to those with power and influence in the areas they serve and there have been some disturbing examples over the years. But Leveson shows vividly how this has been more characteristic of some of our national titles in relation to leading politicians and senior police officers. By contrast, regional and local newspapers are part of the communities they serve. They strengthen our sense of belonging, provide information and exchange of ideas, celebrate what is good and report on what is disturbing. Occasionally, people say that newspapers report only bad news but that is not true of our local and regional press.
Total newspaper circulation is falling by 5% a year and is now 30% less than it was a decade ago. The print media, despite the success and continuing profitability of a few national titles, is in crisis. Our regional newspapers are shedding journalists rapidly and there are now more people working in the public relations industry in Britain than there are in journalism. The press gallery in our courts is too often empty. Frequently, there is no one to report on local council meetings and we are served up with free newspapers and magazines in which councils report on themselves. It is the print media, for all its faults, which has often held our public institutions to account, especially locally and regionally. It is hard to see social media replacing the function, and it leaves us with a potential democratic deficit.
This is likely to become a much greater problem over the next decade or more. So despite the bulk of the Leveson report, there is a good deal more work to be done. Safeguarding what Leveson describes as the unparalleled value of local and regional newspapers is, I believe, just as important as the establishment of a just and fair system of regulation.
My Lords, at the beginning of my remarks I should point out to the House that I am the non-executive chairman of the CN Group, the Cumbrian local media company.
In the fuzz and noise surrounding the deliberations and report of Sir Brian Leveson’s inquiry, a lot of commentators seem to have lost sight of the fact that the inquiry was not about hacking, which is and has for some time been a criminal offence. Rather, it was about the culture in which hacking and other forms of unethical behaviour came to be treated as generally acceptable. After all, the title of the Leveson report is, An inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, pointed out, we all expect a basic standard of ethical behaviour around the institutions that are the building blocks of everyday life—Parliament, government, the Civil Service, commerce, financial services and banking. Equally, and quite rightly, we expect it from the press, where the Editors’ Code is the road map for reputable and ethical journalism—that is to say, about what it does and how it does it. That is not the same as gagging the press from being radical and anti-establishment. Of course, the problem is that in parts of the press, and especially, I fear, in the national press, standards have fallen below what they should have been.
The immediate purpose of the Leveson report is to provide the springboard for defining and establishing a successor to the PCC which, in its present form, has become discredited. However, in my view, the most important part of the Leveson report, certainly in the longer term, is part 6 of chapter 8, on page 1,790. I would not claim that I had meticulously read all the preceding pages. In paragraph 6.21, he looks beyond the immediate issues of the Press Complaints Commission and its successor and discusses things on which he has subsequently elaborated at much greater length in speeches in Australia last year.
As we speak, newspaper presses are being decommissioned and sold for scrap. Last month, Newsweek in its printed form was available for the last time in the Library. This month, it has all gone digital, which means, in the words of a Q&A for its readers:
“You will be able to enjoy Newsweek on any device or platform that we support, and we’ll notify you as new platforms become available so you will have the option to change the version you receive”.
Earlier last year, the Seattle Times, admittedly the second paper in the city, went entirely digital. In this area, where the United States leads, the United Kingdom tends to follow—and very frequently rather more quickly than you might expect.
This revolution matters, because regulation surrounding media behaviour has traditionally depended on two things—platform and jurisdiction. The platform up until now, be it newspaper, television, radio or whatever, has been the obvious focus for media regulation. Jurisdiction has been the obvious envelope to put round it, because it was the obvious limit to the marketplace in which the products were in circulation. But the digital revolution, in the form of convergence, means that all these means of communication are now electronic binary code. The same code delivers across a whole range of different platforms, such as computers, tablets, mobiles and internet protocol television, and across any jurisdiction. Television news and current affairs are morphing into blogs and websites, which in turn are merging with newspapers, which now have moving images on their apps, websites, and so on. As the printing presses go to the physical scrapyard, the framework for regulation is going to the metaphorical one. This is the real challenge of anyone trying to place an ethical framework around the media in the future since, as I have already shown, our existing approach is built around distinct platforms that will become increasingly irrelevant. That is happening in parallel with traditional legal jurisdictional boundaries becoming increasingly porous.
The “ugly duckling”, if I can put it that way, of contemporary British politics—the European Union—has probably done as much thinking about these kinds of things as anyone else in its development of regulation and consumer protection across, and inherent in, the European single market, much of which is conducted by electronic means. In the case of the single market, specifically in media products, the audiovisual media services directive has put in place an approach that gives national authorities some legal ability to intervene in cross-border services emanating from outside their own national jurisdictions but within the European Union. This may be a place where, in the medium term, we should start seeing what we can find which could teach us helpful lessons.
We must also remember that there is the greatest commonality in the media in this country with the United States, which is of course not within the jurisdiction of the European Union. We must not overlook the fact that this is a two-way street. After all, the biggest online website in the world is now, I believe, the Mail Online, which has 50 million unique users a month. The Guardian website is probably third. On a whole range of levels, the relationship between the two English-speaking media areas needs to be examined with care.
In the short term, we need to find a replacement and successor to the Press Complaints Commission that runs with the grain of our traditions and our traditional guarantees of freedoms in this country. For the longer term, more importantly, we need to think through the implications of what has happened both in the press and around the BBC in recent months and see what lessons they can teach us in the evolving world of digital convergence. In this House, in the Communications Committee, we have started to do that in our current inquiry, and it does not look as if there is an immediate and obvious answer. But it is important that we start thinking now, since the commercial and technological developments of today, which are a revolutionary evolution taking place with hardly any reference to us as legislators or to Governments, are going to render the traditional approach to media regulation anachronistic. That is a much greater and more important challenge than simply finding a short-term successor to the Press Complaints Commission.
My Lords, this is clearly an important and so far fascinating debate. There are many fine speakers to come, and I shall try not to delay noble Lords too long.
First, I should declare some ancient interests. Long ago, I worked as a journalist for four newspapers, including one owned by Rupert Murdoch. I was sacked by him, an experience of which I am unequivocally proud. I was also sacked by Robert Maxwell, but I shall not go into that here.
The Leveson report, which we are here to debate, is immensely impressive. I basically support its approach, especially on the need for a fine, delicate layer of statutory underpinning. I support all that was said by my noble friend Lady Jones and by the right reverend Prelate about the value of the local press, the remaining, though fast disappearing, jewel in our media.
The report, of course, has deficiencies and omissions, which is inevitable with such a vast subject to cover in such a little time. It has been and will be comprehensively covered today, so I shall try not to repeat much of what has been said—and I am sure will be said—on the body of the report.
I wish to make just two points. The first, which has been stressed to me by old journalist friends, is that the fact that present proprietors, editors and journalists sadly include some thugs, bullies and, in the case of the Murdoch gang, some alleged—I stress alleged—criminals, does not in itself justify eliminating the basic freedom of the press. I agree with that. However, I do not believe that the Leveson report, if read carefully and fairly, does anything like that. It is careful and subtle in deliberately setting out not to do so. Only the recent ridiculous campaign by some parts of the press to denigrate Leveson by proposing that its aim is for the Government to control what journalists do and do not say suggests that it might do so. The Prime Minister, who is perhaps historically too close to the Murdoch camp—he and his party are not alone in that—is wrong in apparently believing that that is the danger in Leveson, and in seeking to appease the press rather than its victims. I trust that the Minister, when he replies to the debate, will demonstrate that that is not so by accepting the need for some statutory underpinning. However, I confess that I am not too optimistic about that. He should acknowledge that on many previous occasions when the press has been under the scrutiny of previous commissions of inquiry into newspaper behaviour—I think that there have been six in my lifetime—it has always promised to perform more responsibly in order, of course, to avoid closer regulation, but has always broken its word. In recent times it has behaved worse than ever, as the evidence to Leveson and recent actions by the police have proved. It does have form, my Lords. The fact is that it cannot be trusted to operate complete self-regulation.
My second and main point concerns one of the crucial factors which is understandably given little analysis in this hasty report: that is, the excessive concentration of ownership power in the media, which has shaped the culture of the media, to which the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, rightly referred, in particular the concentration of power in Murdoch’s media empire which stems from the 1981 decision to allow him to take over the Sunday Times and the Times. That concentration led to his newspapers having the power to intimidate politicians as well as ordinary members of the public and, over time, led to some—I stress “some”—of his newspapers and journalists feeling that they were above the law and unaccountable. Indeed, it apparently led some of them to feel that they were above all normal standards of moral behaviour, thus leading to the appalling episodes of behaviour which Leveson exposed.
The events of 1981—the takeovers by Murdoch of the Times and the Sunday Times—were central to this process of decline and corruption. The politicians, led by Prime Minister Thatcher, for whom I have great admiration in other fields, behaved outrageously in conniving with Murdoch for him to acquire this excessive power: a bigger concentration of newspaper ownership and power than was ever held by notorious newspaper barons such as Northcliffe and Beaverbrook in the United Kingdom and Hearst in America. Murdoch’s acquisitions were characterised by deceit, misrepresentation of facts to Parliament and the public and contempt for company law—all to avoid reference of these takeovers to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and to allow Murdoch to avoid the official guidelines of a 30% maximum share of newspaper ownership. These events were all set out in meticulous detail by Sir Harold Evans in his inside story, Good Times, Bad Times, which I recommend noble Lords to read, and have never been challenged or disputed. They show how the Prime Minister had a secret meeting in No. 10 to plan these developments. The Prime Minister and Murdoch both later denied that meeting to Parliament and it was never reported to Cabinet although it was minuted by her press secretary. No other competing bidder was given that privileged access. When the deal was done, Parliament was reassured by Murdoch giving five statutory undertakings, backed by criminal sanctions, which mainly referred to guarantees of editorial independence. All these guarantees were subsequently breached without action being taken against Murdoch.
In seeking to avoid a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, the device was used of claiming that the Sunday Times, which in the past and in the future is one of the most profitable British newspapers in history, was “not a going concern” and therefore needed Murdoch’s immediate financial rescue. In fact, the financial statistics on the performance and prospects of the Sunday Times were distorted and misrepresented to Parliament. The paper’s finance director, who knew the true figures, was not called to brief the Department of Trade, whose Secretary of State was handling the issue on behalf of the Prime Minister. It was later reported to me by an official from the No. 10 private office, who I knew, that Mrs Thatcher was heard to say, “Rupert supported me in the election, and I must support him now”. That is an understandable political reaction.
That excessive concentration of power given to Murdoch by dubious methods was, and still is, inimical to the workings of a healthy democracy. It is indicative of the bad effects of such a concentration of media power that the later alleged criminal activities of journalists were concentrated in, though not exclusive to, Murdoch’s empire. When the alleged criminalities were first exposed in the brave Guardian newspaper, that paper was exposed to derision in the mass media, much of it owned by Murdoch. The same patterns of behaviour began to be observed as Murdoch moved towards increasing ownership and power in television through seeking control of BSkyB. If that proceeds, he will probably offer guarantees, but we should remember that he once said the guarantees he gave over the Times were “not worth the paper they were written on”. He has the virtue of honesty.
Concentration of media power enables a proprietor to intimidate or reward politicians, as Murdoch rewarded Mrs Thatcher with future electoral support in his papers, although, of course, that was his natural inclination anyway. Politicians naturally need media support, hence they are tempted to return favours to supporting media. As we know, the police—
I am concluding. It is a potentially corrupting game. All power corrupts and excessive media power corrupts excessively. The Leveson inquiry was an impressive enterprise but it will fail if it does not ensure that such a concentration of media power, and the corruption which follows it, never happens again.
My Lords, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, missed my remarks at the beginning of today’s debate, but it might be helpful for me from time to time to give noble Lords a sense of how we are doing as regards time. I remind everybody that we have suggested—this is just guidance—that speeches should last for around seven minutes if we are to rise at around five o’clock this afternoon. We are starting to run a little behind schedule.
My Lords, in view of the attack by the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, on Rupert Murdoch, I suppose that I should declare an interest, in that I have represented the Times and the Sunday Times in both Rupert Murdoch’s reign and that of Harold Evans.
Sir Brian Leveson is a very senior and experienced criminal judge. His careful evaluation of the evidence has demonstrated, in his words, that there have been far too many occasions when parts of the press have acted,
“as if its own code … did not exist. This has caused real hardship and, on occasion, wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people whose rights and liberties have been disdained. This is not just the famous but ordinary members of the public, caught up in events (many of them, truly tragic) far larger than they could cope with but made much, much worse by press behaviour that, at times, can only be described as outrageous”.
I strongly agree with that conclusion and the central recommendation for a new self-regulation body, independent in respect of appointments and funding, with a standards code, an arbitration service and a speedy complaint-handling mechanism. I also agree that it is essential that there is legislation to underpin and facilitate its recognition in legal processes. I have sought to do so in the little Bill that I introduced last month.
I strongly support self-regulation with statutory underpinning, not state regulation, under a new system that commands widespread public confidence. A contract or a royal charter should contain the machinery and details of self-regulation, including professional codes, arbitration and dealing with complaints. However, there needs to be statutory underpinning to guarantee independence from government interference—I do not share the apparent trust of the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in politicians other than the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—to create incentives for joining the scheme and complying with professional standards, and to make sure that the new regulator is able to secure compliance and provide effective remedies.
The overriding and pressing need is for the industry to agree on a new, independent, well resourced and powerful regulator of professional standards and conduct. Statutory underpinning should avoid legislative overreach bordering on state regulation. However, Sir Brian’s proposals include extending the law on punitive damages and data protection. That, in my opinion, would be counterproductive and would seriously hamper investigative journalism in breach of the freedom of expression of the public and the media as public watchdogs, and purveyors of information and ideas to the public on matters of legitimate public interest and concern.
Lord Justice Leveson recommends extending the law on exemplary damages by Act of Parliament so that if a newspaper publisher chooses not to subscribe to the proposed regulatory body and is found to have infringed the civil law rights of a claimant, the publisher could be considered on that basis to have shown wilful disregard of standards and be liable to exemplary or punitive damages. This potentially draconian penalty would apply to any newspaper publisher, including a small regional newspaper or Private Eye. I disagree with that recommendation. Exemplary damages are punitive and, in essence, criminal penalties, not intended to compensate the claimant for any loss. In 1997, the Law Commission recommended that there should be an extension of exemplary damages, but there was no consideration of whether that would conform to the constitutional right to free speech.
Sir Brian relies on that 1997 report and explains that he has,
“no doubt that the court should be able to award exemplary damages in privacy cases and ... breach of confidence and similar media tort”.
However, in 1999, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Irvine of Lairg, was Lord Chancellor, the Labour Government announced for good reason that it had decided not to take that Law Commission recommendation on exemplary damages. The Labour Government reiterated that position eight years later, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was Lord Chancellor, in their 2007 consultation. Lord Justice Leveson’s report does not mention these continued rejections of that proposal. Nor does it consider the serious risk that to extend the law on exemplary damages in that way would be incompatible with free speech.
It goes further. The report refers to Mr Justice Eady’s ruling in the Mosley case, but fails to quote the passage from the judgment in that case that is at odds with Leveson’s recommendation. Mr Justice Eady sets out in detail why it would be wrong in principle and a violation of free speech to extend exemplary damages in the way that is suggested. Mr Justice Eady’s statement is important because the tests of necessity and proportionality that he sets out have to be satisfied if a penalty on free speech were to pass muster under our constitutional right to free expression. I very much hope that that proposal will not be taken forward by the Government or anyone else.
I also disagree with the recommendation to tighten the law on data protection. The proposed amendments would result in restrictions on investigative journalism that could defeat the very object of the protection afforded by Section 32 of the Data Protection Act and tilt the balance unfairly against press freedom and free speech. I am quoted by Sir Brian Leveson in his report as being “prescient” in having, in a debate a dozen years ago, queried whether what the Government were doing on data protection made sense. Sir Brian describes me as prescient, but I was never asked to give evidence to the inquiry and, if I had been, I would have said that I did not share the view that I had been prescient. The past 12 years have not demonstrated that anything like the changes made to data protection proposed would now be justifiable. It is therefore welcome that the Government are going to consult on that crucial question.
Statutory underpinning is needed to compel Ministers and others to uphold freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the independence and effectiveness of the new regulator. Those aims cannot be achieved by contract alone because a contract does not bind third parties or affect the role of the courts. Another reason why an Act of Parliament is needed is to provide a powerful incentive for publishers to join the new system and abide by high professional standards. That incentive is contained in my little Bill by widening the public interest defence in claims of libel and media intrusion on personal privacy where the newspaper, its editor or staff can show—it is for them to do so—that they have acted responsibly in news gathering and publishing, in accordance with the standards and practices prescribed by the new regulator. The courts would take that into account, making it much less likely that the publisher would be found liable for alleged wrongdoing. I hope something along these lines will be accepted by the press and the politicians to overcome what I regard as irrational opposition to any statutory underpinning.
My Lords, it is with considerable excitement, a great sense of honour and no little trepidation that I rise to give my maiden speech. In thinking about it—because of the postponement, I have had rather longer to think about it than I might have wished—I realise that the custom in this House of not being able to speak freely from the Floor until one has given one’s maiden speech is a very polite way of ensuring something that I personally always observe when entering any new organisation; namely, for a while, it is wise to keep one’s ears open and one’s mouth shut. However, the time has come to open my mouth.
You may wonder why a veterinary surgeon such as myself should want to speak in the Leveson debate. I shall come to that in a moment but, first, there are some courtesies to observe that I am very pleased to do. Like others before me, I have received a very warm welcome in this place from all the Members and staff of all types, and I am extremely grateful to everyone for their kindness, good advice and the warmth of their welcome. I should also like to thank my two supporting Peers at my introduction: the noble Lord, Lord Owen, was the chancellor of the University of Liverpool throughout the seven years that I was dean of the School of Veterinary Science there—he was a great supporter of the faculty; and the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, as your Lordships will know, was the first veterinary surgeon to enter this House, and was indeed the only one until my arrival. Moreover, Lawson Soulsby has been a great personal academic friend and colleague. We are both parasitologists. That has caused some of my veterinary colleagues rather uncharitably to wonder if the study of parasites is an appropriate requisite to serve in this House, but I could not possibly comment. Finally, I would like to thank my noble friend Lady Mar who has been a great support to me before entering and since and is a source of constant advice, thanks to her 37 years, I think it is, of experience in this place.
On the more substantive issue, why speak on the Leveson debate? I am a veterinary surgeon. I am a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and we are subject to a self-regulatory process underpinned by statute, which is exactly what Leveson proposes. As a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, I have been subject to that professional regulation throughout my professional career up to and including now. As president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons some three years ago, I was part of the executive arm of that regulatory framework sitting on the preliminary investigation committee, which is analogous to the complaints mechanism that Leveson proposes.
I am sure that those of your Lordships who have had contact with the veterinary profession will agree that the system works and that the veterinary profession provides a fantastic system of healthcare for the animals in this country and for their owners. It is a system of the highest integrity and ethics in the public interest, which does not curtail individual professional freedom.
I appreciate that analogies between professional regulation and press regulation are not entirely apt. When we talk about press regulation we are talking about the regulation of journalism, not of journalists. That is partly because of the problem of defining who is a journalist.
Strictly speaking, journalists are not members of a profession in a technical sense. They do not undergo an accredited period of training leading to entry to a register, the acceptance of a code of conduct or the acceptance of disciplinary processes and sanctions which may ultimately remove them from that register or list. Therein may lie some of the problem, but I suggest that is a different debate and one to which the journalistic profession, if I may call it that, might like to give some thought.
While the analogy is not entirely apt, there are some general principles in any regulatory system which are essential to give it credibility and to assure the public. They include such things as inclusivity; all the relevant parties must be involved. Public protection cannot be an optional extra left to the individual whim of the operator to join in with or not as they see fit. There must be a code, of course, agreed by all. There must be independence of the regulator. Here I would like to mention something that has not been mentioned so far: the important role that lay persons can play in regulatory bodies. There must be appropriate sanctions and, I would suggest, statutory backing, which among other things is there to ensure the inclusivity and effectiveness of sanctions.
These are all elements of professional regulation and of course they are essential elements recommended by Leveson in his report. The last element—statutory underpinning—is the most controversial; however, I stress that the proposal is about the process of regulation, not the action of individuals. It is difficult to see how one could ensure inclusivity and also that sanctions are enforceable without a degree of statutory underpinning.
Leveson offers an ingenious solution regarding inclusivity. It is the recognition body that has the statutory underpinning; it is there just to ensure that the regulatory body, which is at arm’s length, properly does its job and particularly that all the news publishers of importance are included in and subject to the regulatory body, which itself is independent. To suggest that the freedom of the press would be curtailed is to ignore that critical separation. It is also to ignore the important role the lay members of the recognition body and the regulatory body would play. Those lay members will be every bit as anxious to preserve the freedom of the press as they will be to ensure that it behaves ethically and properly.
It is not just vets who are subject to professional regulation with statutory backing. Many in this House who are members of the legal profession are so regulated. Are we suggesting that lawyers and barristers cannot seek truth and justice, cannot ensure fairness and freedom and cannot root out crime and corruption because they are subject to regulation with statutory underpinning? No.
This is the seventh report, I think, in as many decades on this subject. Not to act decisively on this occasion would be like St Augustine—who, your Lordships may remember, was troubled with thoughts of lustfulness all his life—asking God not once, but for the seventh time, “God grant me chastity, but not yet”.
My Lords, may I first congratulate the noble Lord on his maiden speech, which was quite excellent? No one has had to wait longer to make it, given that he was sitting patiently in his place just before Christmas and, if I may say so, it was very much worth the wait. I agree with what he said about statutory underpinning safeguarding the public. I think we will all want to study the words that he uttered; it was an important speech.
The noble Lord is a very distinguished scientist. He spent most of the past 20 years at Liverpool University. His achievements take up a significant chunk in Who’s Who, but what also interested me were his recreations. Recreation one is mountaineering, recreation two is “living life while I’m alive”. As a non-mountaineer, I would judge the two recreations are very closely connected. The whole House will wish to congratulate the noble Lord and I hope that “living life while I’m alive” will include making many more speeches in this House.
Perhaps I may say to my noble friend the Whip on the Front Bench, as is customary, my seven minutes start now. When I originally raised the issue of phone hacking, I remember being assured by a senior Cabinet member that it was just an issue for the media village. I think we can say that with more than 50 speakers in this debate it has gone way beyond that and has been revealed as the worst press scandal since the Second World War.
I started life as a journalist for almost 10 years in the swinging 1960s. I worked just off Fleet Street with the Times under the editorship of William Haley, and then of William Rees-Mogg, who we all remember with great affection. Indeed, if Lord Rees-Mogg’s high journalistic standards had been generally followed, we would not be having this debate today.
As a result of my journalistic past I was always regarded in government as something of an apologist and a defender of the press and the media. My noble friend Lady Thatcher never forgot my journalistic past. I remember at a reception for the Prime Minister of Finland she spied me, “Ah, Norman”, she said, “come and have a word. You know all about paper”. She added, “The Manchester Guardian”. This lady knew how to wound. As for her successor, John Major, he also simply regarded me as a hopeless case when it came to putting into action his not very temperate views on the British press.
Let me be quite clear: the journalists and editors I have worked with over the years in the national and regional press were and are predominantly men of honesty and integrity and sometimes of substantial courage, such as the war correspondents now at work in Syria.
Frankly, I am much more accustomed to defending the press and much more comfortable in that role, so why is it that in the past two years I have campaigned for change? Basically it is because I have seen the values that I and most journalists hold high trampled into the dirt; it is because I have seen so-called journalists attacking the public rather than carrying out their essential duty of standing up for their rights; and it is because I have seen a newspaper industry unable and unwilling to take action against palpable wrong-doing. One may say that actions such as phone hacking are criminal offences, and so they are, but what they also pointed to was a deeply rotten culture which had grown up in some parts of the press. It was so rotten that one mass-circulation newspaper had to be closed; so rotten that 1,000 people, and probably more, have been the likely victims of phone hacking; and so rotten that the Press Complaints Commission, which is there to protect the public, has been deemed by Leveson and virtually everybody else to be unfit for purpose.
What has confirmed me in my view is the dishonest campaign that over the past few months has been mounted against change by some of the most powerful figures in the industry. Rather than admit that there has been abuse of power, they seem to feel that they have been unfairly put upon. The result is that, even before the Leveson report appeared, there were adverts such as the one that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 26 November saying:
“These people believe in state control of the press. Do you?”.
This was followed by pictures of Mugabe, Assad, Castro and Putin, and the injunction:
“Say no to state regulation of the press”.
There cannot be any serious figure in this country who believes that a comparison between Lord Justice Leveson and Mugabe and Assad is anything other than the crudest and most dishonest form of abuse.
Furthermore, anyone who believes that because of the revelations of the past two years and the Leveson inquiry everything has already changed needs only to look at Andrew Mitchell’s account of his experiences with the press. They laid siege outside his home for more than a month, they followed his children and his wife in cars and on foot, and they even tried to find his 92 year-old mother-in-law but fortunately managed to get the wrong address. It is not exactly the strongest case for allowing the industry alone to protect the public interest in this country.
My view is that Lord Justice Leveson has done this country a great service. He has demolished once and for all the excuse that phone hacking was the work of one rogue reporter, and he has revealed the almost total inactivity of many proprietors and editors when undoubted evidence of wrong-doing was produced. Most of all, I support Leveson because he has put forward a system that would protect the public from abuse of power but would not be state regulation. In effect, he would allow the industry to come together and set up a complaints and investigation body that would be given certain rights provided it exercised its powers responsibly and independently. I accept that one does not have to follow every one of his proposals—for example, in relation to Ofcom—but the decision that cannot be avoided is whether we have a modest degree of statutory underpinning. It is statutory underpinning that Lord Justice Leveson proposes. We should be clear about how modest that is, for what we are talking about is basically a body that will periodically validate the independent arrangements that have been decided.
Personally, I think it is utterly ludicrous to describe that as state regulation, but it is important because it gives the public the assurance that their complaints will be investigated properly and independently and, above all, will continue to be so. That, it seems to me, is an assurance that they are entitled to have after decades of false starts and failures. Nor do I accept that the legislation need be long or complex. No less than four draft Bills have now been prepared, each one shorter than any of the Bills that I introduced as the Minister in charge of transport, health, social security and employment. It is a nonsensical argument.
As for the Government’s apparently favoured solution of setting up a new body under a royal charter, I cannot decide whether that is intended as a reward for the press for past conduct or as a punishment for what they have done. I say punishment because a royal charter hands over control to the Privy Council and, as the Privy Council’s own guidance says:
“This effectively means a significant degree of Government regulation of the affairs of the body”.
Why the press should want that is entirely beyond me. I repeat:
“a significant degree of Government regulation”,
resulting from a charter which, in its workings, will certainly require legislation—legislation otherwise known by some as statutory intervention.
The truth of the matter is this. If this were any other industry, it would be the press themselves clamouring for reform, and it would be the press themselves telling Parliament to ignore the claims of special interest groups. I believe that our concern should above all be the public interest. What we need is a short Bill which underlines and safeguards the freedom of the press while at the same time recognising that with that freedom comes the duty to respect the truth, to obey the law and, above all, to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals. That is what the Leveson report proposes. We will never have a better opportunity to act.
My Lords, first, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on his maiden speech. I look forward to hearing more from him in the future.
Like many in this House, I have watched the events of the past 16 months with a degree of horror and disbelief but also with, I have to be honest, not a huge degree of surprise. So many lives have been destroyed by so few for so little, but perhaps the greatest victim of them all has been public trust—public trust in print journalism and its current system of voluntary regulation; public trust in the police and their ability to investigate the criminal activities of some of the press; and public trust in us, the politicians, to stand up to press intimidation, especially in the face of commercial pressures. We have all been found wanting and today is our opportunity to begin to put things right.
I am optimistic that we can do so, in part because of the extraordinary work of Lord Justice Leveson. He has produced a measured, thoughtful and, I believe, extraordinary example of what works in our society. We should all be proud of this report because it has created a backdrop for rebuilding public trust in our most valued institutions. Like others, I am a little disappointed by some elements of the newspaper industry, who have deliberately misrepresented the report in order to scare the public in pursuit of their own self-interest.
First, I want to look at what I think we can all agree on. I believe that we can find much to agree on in the following nine judgments contained within the report. The first is that a free press, with all the rights and responsibilities that that entails, is essential. The second is the clear inadequacies of the PCC. The third is the need for a genuinely independent and effective system of self-regulation for the press. The fourth is the creation of a new body with teeth that promotes high standards of journalism and protects the rights of the individual. Fifth is the importance of maintaining a plural media, particularly when it comes to sourcing news. The sixth is that the commercial pressures and ambitions of national newspapers should not be an excuse to lower standards or trample on citizens’ rights. The seventh is that the relationships between senior politicians of all parties and the press should be much more transparent. Eighth is that the Metropolitan Police was probably too close to certain newspaper groups, and its judgments were poor in the investigation of the criminal activities of those newspapers. The ninth is that the culture of tip-offs and payments to the police and other public servants by some should not have been tolerated by any of us.
Those provide us with common ground to move forward. So the debate boils down to one single issue: a system of self-regulation underpinned by statute, or not? There it is in a nutshell: underpinning by statute or not? I fully accept that there are other important issues of detail in the report, but that single question is what each of us has to answer. I have reluctantly come to the view that, in the absence of any other credible structure being put forward, the time to underpin self-regulation by statute has finally come.
I will raise three further issues. The first is funding. If self-regulation is to work, it needs to be properly funded. I believe that there is a strong case for looking to state funding. It is not a discussion for today, but I would like the Government to look seriously at the issue.
Secondly, I would like a new offence on the statute book to deal with the issue of press intimidation. When a newspaper group uses information on an individual to coerce them into revealing details of their own or others’ private lives in return for protection or non-publication, it feels to me like blackmail, and we should make it a criminal offence. Thirdly, the lobbying of newspaper groups on their own behalf in their own papers needs to be looked at again.
Finally, what are we to do with this report and its recommendations? I find myself in agreement with John Major who, in his evidence, said:
“I have no idea what this Inquiry will recommend, but if it makes recommendations that require action, then I think it is infinitely more likely that that action will be carried into legislation if it has the support of the major parties. If it does not, if one party breaks off and decides it’s going to seek future favour with powerful proprietors and press barons by opposing it, then it will be very difficult for it to be carried into law”.
I believe that it was no accident that Lord Justice Leveson highlights John Major’s remarks as his final concluding remark.
I understand that it is tempting for Prime Ministers of all political parties to seek to accommodate powerful proprietors, and I feel no animosity towards the Prime Minister for his attempts to broker an alternative solution. However, I say to the Prime Minister, to the leader of my own party and to the leader of the Liberal Democrats: come together and lead, because this report sets out a once-in-a-generation route map to ensure a free and fair press.
I also say to my fellow Back-Benchers on all sides of the House that leadership, as noble Lords may know, does not always come from those on the Front Benches, We, too, have our role to play—by the way, this would not be a good time to intervene on timing. If we believe that the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson require action, we on the Back Benches in this place have a special constitutional role to play in making that happen. There is an onus on us to ensure change. In doing so, we can help to restore trust in the press, in the police and in this Parliament, too.
I, too, share in welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and commend his congenial and appropriate speech. The Leveson report reminds us that the inquiry,
“was sparked by public revulsion at a single action—the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager”.
However, its scope was expanded widely, and it became an enthralling and sometimes entertaining event.
The terms of reference of the 1961 Shawcross royal commission were limited to the economic and financial factors affecting the production and sale of newspapers. Leveson covers the culture—always rather a loose word—of the press, and I am not sure whether an all-encompassing report was wise. The internet, social networking and other changes in technology may turn out to be a more complex and critical issue, especially for privacy, than the future of conventional newspapers.
The relations of the press with police and politicians are of a different kind. There are certainly serious concerns about the way the police deal with newspapers, and about internal police behaviour. This is about far more than routine tip-offs from a local police station when a drunken celebrity falls down in the street.
As for politicians, when the inquiry was set up, the leaders of the three main parties said that in recent years politicians had become too close to the press, and implied that there had been a significant change. However, the relationship is long-standing; politicians and the press have benefited from stroking or bullying each other.
Over Christmas, I read an enjoyable volume of diaries written by Chris Mullin, who was a Member of Parliament and is now retired. In one of his diaries, he describes the “tabloid virus”—his expression—as,
“the daily cocktail of misrepresentation, trivialisation and relentless cynicism that is gnawing at the foundations of democracy”.
That is the same language of hyperbole that is used by much of the press that he deplores.
I do not much like the red-tops, and the broadsheets can often fall short. In the latter respect, I endorse the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in a letter to the Times a week or so ago. However, politics is a tough business. For a politician, resilience in the face of the press should be taken for granted.
The powers of press proprietors or barons have been familiar since the arrival of the yellow press in the closing decades of the 19th century, led by the Harmsworth brothers. After Northcliffe and Rothermere there was in particular Lord Beaverbrook, who recruited left-wing journalists from the weekly Tribune to campaign for his right-wing causes. In the 1930s there was a huge marketing competition between Hulton, Pearson and Odhams that resulted in many gifts being delivered to modest homes. As a child, for many years I read to my advantage a News Chronicle dictionary bound in mock leather.
I will not dwell further on these historic matters except to say that there are outstanding editors and journalists working today who can match the editors and journalists of the past. My preferred aphorism—perhaps it is a platitude—is that editors and journalists should stay within the law, separate news from comment and check the facts. If they sometimes fall short, that is the price we have to pay for free speech.
For six years I was chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority. My successors have been the noble Lords, Lord Borrie and Lord Smith of Finsbury. In the early 1970s there was serious public concern about advertising, and the Director of Fair Trading warned the industry that a formal, statutory body would follow unless it put its house in order through effective self-regulation. This led to the Advertising Standards Authority as it is known today. There have been changes. In my years as chairman, I invited, for the first time, members of the public to seek a place on the council of the ASA. I welcomed and facilitated an appeals system which the industry wanted. Later, the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, oversaw a major expansion, bringing broadcast advertising within its scope, thus moving into self-regulation.
As the House knows, the ASA is funded by a levy raised by a board of the advertising industry. I was appointed, as were the noble Lords, Lord Borrie and Lord Smith, in turn, by its chairman. There was no pressure of any kind put on me or my council at any time. My council had eight lay members who had no connection to the advertising industry, and I was expected to consider and approve even the four advertising industry members. The ASA is now well established, with an expert and committed staff. It is trusted by the public and is often praised. It is seen to be a great success and a model of self-regulation. I look forward to hearing more about the progress of the proposals of the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Black.
There will be a moving scene for some months. However, it is not surprising, given my own experience with the ASA, that I lean towards similar arrangements to solve the problems set out in the Leveson report. To deal with the press is a much tougher assignment than dealing with advertising, even as it was in the 1970s. An independent, self-regulatory body must have its own budget and, despite my entirely satisfactory experience, the chairman must be chosen, as Leveson says, in a genuinely open and transparent way, free from the industry and government. I welcome the report if its implementation stays close to the model of the ASA—self-regulation with a light statutory touch.
My Lords, I shall speak solely on one aspect of the Leveson debate: the Irish dimension, which clearly exists. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter has already referred to it and, even the day before the Leveson report was published, the Scottish First Minister said that the Irish model should be the Leveson model and urged it on the Prime Minister. This showed a rare courage on behalf of the Scottish First Minister as he had spent some years previously endorsing the Irish economic model only to find that rebounding back on him in a rather problematic way.
However, there is no question but that Sir Brian Leveson paid great attention to the experience in Dublin and the regulator in Ireland, the very distinguished historian, John Horgan, came to London to give important evidence. In his speech on the Leveson report in the other place the Deputy Prime Minister referred to this and quite rightly said that it was hard to argue that there was,
“a deeply illiberal press environment across the Irish Sea”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/12; col. 471.]
Another Liberal Democrat MP, Mr Tim Farron, also argued that something similar to Leveson was already in place in Ireland. When replying, the Prime Minister had the Irish Defamation Act with him at the Dispatch Box and recommended that Members of the House should study it. I have studied it and it will be at the core of what I have to say.
I wish to argue, first, that the Leveson recommendations are significantly different from the Irish model and significantly tougher. Secondly, I would argue that there are some problems that we ought to at least be aware of when we talk about the Irish model.
Leveson is tougher than the model in place in Dublin in three respects. I refer particularly to the summary of recommendations of Leveson at paragraph 5(d), when he argues that the board of an independent, self-regulatory body should not include any serving editor. In contrast, the Irish press council includes serving editors of the leading Dublin newspapers.
Secondly, again unlike Ireland, Leveson recommends that the proposed press board in Britain should allow people other than those directly affected to make complaints and that the board should have the power to examine issues on its own initiative. Again that is not the case in Dublin.
Finally, of course, it is widely understood that Leveson argues for a maximum £1 million fine on errant publications, while in Ireland the only sanction is to request such publications prominently to publish the decisions of the press council. So the Leveson model is significantly stronger than the model in place in Dublin.
I say that simply for the purposes of clarification. I fully accept that they do not resolve the argument, one way or the other, about the content of the Leveson proposals.
If Leveson is significantly tougher, what are the implications? The Deputy Prime Minister made the point—it has also been made in this House today—that a number of UK newspapers have accepted for their Irish market, so to speak, this light touch regulation. The Deputy Prime Minister was right to say that Ireland does not have a deeply illiberal press environment—of course it does not—but does it have quite the same tradition of freedom of expression of opinion that we are used to in this country? Is it quite as vibrant?
On the week after the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech, the Dublin Sunday Independent, the leading Sunday newspaper in Ireland, noted that,
“The confluence of separate recent controversies around varied issues and the increasingly regular private litigation against journalists has facilitated the evolution of a subtle frost over how freely we can speak”.
There is an argument that all sections of this House and the other place welcomed the report by Sir Desmond de Silva and the Finucane inquiry and welcomed the Prime Minister’s apology about a very grim moment in the recent history of our country, but anyone who knows the history of that inquiry will know that it is extremely unlikely that there would have been an inquiry at all but for the fact that there were briefings of journalists by some sections of the police in ways which Leveson has now set its face against.
It is clear that there has been in many respects a rather disgraceful relationship between the police and journalists in the United Kingdom, but I simply draw attention to the complexity of these issues. This is a case where the House as a whole says, “It is wonderful that we now know the truth”, but does not want to face up to some of the means by which we got to know the truth.
Let me make a final critical point. The Prime Minister referred to the Irish Defamation Act 2009 and Clause 26 reads to me like a transaction in which the press agrees to be regulated but is allowed to offer a public interest defence. All parties here have reached the point where we accept that the press has a right to offer a public interest defence in defamation cases, but not as part of a transaction: we accept that the press has that right. So, again, there is a sense in which the Irish analogy does not quite hold. It leaves open entirely the questions, pro and con, about Leveson. There is no Irish gold standard and there is no model in Dublin ready to be packed on an Aer Lingus flight and flown over to London for our use.
My Lords, I declare an interest as chair and now sole owner of the Press Complaints Commission, and as a practising solicitor and partner in the international commercial law firm DAC Beachcroft.
I was appointed to the PCC in October 2011 specifically to lead the renewal and regeneration of the system of self-regulation. In that context, I welcome the debate and the opportunity to listen to views from all sides of the House. I know that my noble friend Lord Black of Brentwood is sad that he cannot be here, but he has to be in Paris discussing press freedom.
I start by echoing the many others in this House and elsewhere who have rightly welcomed Sir Brian’s remarkably thoughtful, comprehensive and far-reaching report. It reminds us all too vividly of the horrors of the past and is replete with some good and positive ideas for the future. I have been through the entire report, and I hope that others have too, and I am delighted that Sir Brian decided not to recommend a system of self-regulation established by statute. Like many others, I would have regarded that as a step too far and an unacceptable imposition upon freedom of expression. It is also, I believe, unnecessary. A truly effective but non-statutory regulatory system can and must be created to establish once and for all the highest possible professional standards right across the newspaper and magazine industry, and among digital-only news publishers too, all underpinned by law, but civil contract law.
As a consequence of Sir Brian’s wise judgment, there is already a wide measure of consensus on the way forward, wider than many of us had ever thought possible, across the political parties, the newspaper and magazine industry and beyond. All the parties are now fully signed up to seeing the regulatory structure recommended by Sir Brian Leveson up and running as soon as is practicable, but it must satisfy the principles of the Leveson report. It should be buttressed by incentives and its independence and effectiveness must be verified by an authoritative, independent body of some kind.
I have to report that yesterday, I hosted the third in a series of three meetings, each of which brought together editorial and non-editorial figures from right across the newspaper and magazine industry and from right across the United Kingdom. It is clear to me that the industry now understands that, between the existing and inadequate system of self-regulation and what Leveson proposes, there is no acceptable “third way”.
I now have a dual role. First, it remains my responsibility and that of my two fellow directors at the PCC to ensure that until the new structure is fully up and running, the PCC continues to deliver its fast, fair and free service to the public. Every year, the PCC helps hundreds of people who feel they have a legitimate complaint against a newspaper, magazine or online article and have no one else to whom they are able to turn. I have to tell the House that in the most recent survey of complainants to the PCC, 86% of respondents who gave an opinion said that the staff were either “satisfactory”, “helpful” or, indeed, “very helpful”. I pay tribute to the excellent staff and commissioners at the PCC for remaining on board to deliver that first-class service.
My other role is to establish the new regulatory architecture as called for by Sir Brian Leveson. I want to keep quoting from the report, but time will limit the extent to which I can. On page 1,769, he says:
“It is worth repeating that the ideal outcome is a satisfactory independent regulatory body, established by the industry, that is able to secure the voluntary support and membership of the entire industry and thus able to command the support of the public”.
He repeats that 10 times in the report, and if anyone wants to read that, I am very happy to supply it.
I am confident that, together with the industry, I can deliver that new structure with comprehensive sign-up right across the newspaper and magazine industry by the middle of this year. It will then be for others both here and in the other place to decide whether any form of statute is required, either to guarantee the independence of the new regulator or to underpin the proposed incentives to membership.
In view of the remarks of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury—I refer her to pages 1,760 and 1,761—I acknowledge that I have approached the present chair of the Advertising Standards Authority and the chair of the Environment Agency, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Finsbury; also Sir Simon Jenkins, who was a member of the Calcutt committee, and the immediate past president of the Supreme Court, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, to assist me. I am very grateful to them for that. Under the chairmanship of Paul Vickers of Trinity Mirror, an implementation group from the industry itself is seeking to close the ever-smaller gap that remains between the industry and full compliance with Leveson principles. A group of lawyers is developing the contract and fleshing out how the proposed arbitral arm might function. This will require a delicate balance to which my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill has already referred.
I am optimistic of a good outcome. We shall see a profound change of culture and an end to sloppy journalism ruining the lives of innocent people without losing all that is good in our press. We shall demonstrate that, for a good journalist, freedom of expression and professional principles can and must be inseparable, indeed symbiotic. To the victims, finally, I say this: those victims of unacceptable press behaviour in the past which has been so forensically exposed by Sir Brian Leveson—the McCanns, Chris Jefferies, Margaret Watson, the Dowlers—the clear message must be never, never, never, never, never again.
My Lords, I know that the whole House appreciates the enormous diligence and enthusiasm with which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is trying to undertake and resolve these issues. I wish I could share his optimism about the future, but I am sure that the House joins in wishing him well on achieving the negotiated settlement that he has been trying to get.
My interest in taking part in the debate is like that of other noble Lords who have spoken—the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter. I have spent much of my working life as a journalist, albeit usually as a broadcast journalist. In recent years I have also served as a non-executive director in several media companies. Most relevant to this debate is my nine-year membership, ending up as the senior independent director, of the Independent News and Media Group, the largest newspaper group based in Ireland. It has global interests and publishes across the world. But unlike the noble Lord, Lord Bew, who I am sorry to see is not in his place, I have far greater enthusiasm for the system which has been working in Ireland than he, and in a few minutes I will go on to explain why.
Like the other former journalists who have spoken, I am a firm supporter of the majority of Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals for future press regulation, including the need for so-called statutory underpinning. Indeed, in theory, or if the canvas was totally blank, I would go further, especially in the area of personal privacy. In practice, my experience of the working model of general regulation in Ireland convinces me that a Leveson-style plan is both realistic and achievable. In addition, for this country I would like legislation to limit the size of individual media ownerships, something that my noble friend Lord Donoughue spoke about, to try to achieve greater plurality in the industry. I am disappointed that none of the draft Bills published so far advocates this. The National Union of Journalists and several campaign groups have argued that reducing the concentration of ownership in the UK would in itself improve the press, and I have to say that I agree. Perhaps any further proposals, or the final proposals if they come, will revive the public interest test, which this House has discussed on many occasions, to limit the market share of media companies. I look forward to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, who is to speak after me. I understand that he will be developing some of these points.
Going back to the practicalities of regulation, what does a system of self-regulation for the press which has—in that infelicitous phrase—“statutory underpinning” look like? As I say, my experience in Ireland gives me confidence that it can and does work. As we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Bew, the Press Council of Ireland and the supporting Office of the Press Ombudsman were set up in 2009 as part of a reform of the law on defamation. I was surprised when the Prime Minister, speaking in the Commons, criticised the Irish legislation as being “too cumbersome” for us to follow. In fact, those sections of the Irish Act which established the press council are only one clause—Section 44 of the 2009 Act—and one schedule, Schedule 2. Of course, Ireland’s Defamation Act as a whole—which is similar to one this House is now considering—is much more substantial, but the relevant section on the press is approximately three pages, even fewer than the six pages of the Labour Party’s proposals for legislation here. I certainly do not think it should be rejected out of hand as peculiarly elaborate.
It is worth quoting the main provisions which established the Irish press council. As I am sure your Lordships will appreciate, they read across very precisely to the Leveson proposals, although they do not exactly reflect them, as we have already heard. The Act says:
“The principal objects of the Press Council shall be to … ensure the protection of freedom of expression of the press … protect the public interest by ensuring ethical, accurate and truthful reporting by the press … maintain certain minimum ethical and professional standards … ensure that the privacy and dignity of the individual is protected … The Press Council shall be independent in the performance of its functions … The number of directors of the Press Council shall be 13 … One of the independent public interest directors of the Press Council shall be appointed as chairperson of the Press Council”.
In addition, the Act sets up an independent ombudsman with the ability to investigate complaints against the press. It seems to me that those provisions are very straightforward and uncomplicated, and very much in tune with the essential outlines of Leveson.
My experience as a member of the largest newspaper board subject to this legal form of regulation, and indeed my recent inquiries about the practical application of the complaints mechanism, suggests that the Irish system works well. After all, Ireland is not a country that avoids political debate or controversial press comment, but there has been none of the—frankly—hysterical reaction provoked by similar regulatory proposals here. Indeed, I cannot remember a single occasion when the INM board has discussed them since the legislation was passed. In particular, the creation of the special ombudsman office to determine public complaints has been particularly successful. The system has to be quick—complaints are expected to be resolved within 30 days—and, very importantly, it is inexpensive. As the explanatory notes say: “Any citizen can lodge a complaint for the price of a postage stamp or an e-mail”. The service is free—an enormous improvement on a situation where often only the rich have the option of pursuing their concerns in financially crippling court cases. As I said, there have been few complaints about the new system, which is described officially as “recognised in law”, a description which I find more attractive and equally valid as “statutorily underpinned”.
Of course, one of the real ironies of the situation in Ireland is that all the English newspapers which are printed and published under the Irish jurisdiction are themselves subject to Ireland’s regulatory framework. I have just spent the Christmas Recess in a remote corner of west Cork, where I can buy the Irish editions of any English newspaper in the local shop as a matter of course. However, in the past few years since the law was passed by the Dublin Parliament, there have been no cries about government control or censorship from their UK owners or editors. I suppose it is possible that they are suffering in silence under what they see as grotesque oppression, but they do not complain and my suspicion is that they just do not notice.
In summary, the Irish press council upholds the principles of a free press, maintains ethical and professional standards and, through the special press ombudsman, provides swift and free redress for complainants. The system, which is independent but legally recognised, is widely supported by both the media and the public. I think it has very important lessons for us.
My Lords, on page 1461 of his report, Lord Justice Leveson notes that, among other things, he is required to make recommendations for a new, more effective policy and regulatory regime which supports the plurality of the media. He goes on to say:
“This does not amount to a requirement for a detailed prescription on what constitutes sufficient plurality or the technical means of achieving it. It is important to note that, within the broad constraints of the work that the Inquiry has had to undertake, there has been insufficient time to devote to a full scale review or to look in detail at these issues. My analysis and recommendations are therefore at the level of desirable outcomes and broad policy framework, rather than the technical means of achieving those outcomes”.
Many may feel that this is a real pity and an opportunity missed. Lord Justice Leveson’s rather narrow interpretation of his brief on plurality stands in contrast to his very detailed examination and recommendations on media regulation. It would be a mistake to conclude from this that plurality was less central than the issue of regulation. However, I note that in his opening remark, the Minister made no mention at all of plurality.
The lack of plurality in our current media landscape is a clear driver of misbehaviour in parts of the media. Regulations without structural reform will not solve all the problems Leveson was asked to address. The executive summary of Lord Justice Leveson’s report contains 146 main paragraphs. Of these, only six address plurality. The full report does a little better: it sets out some useful observations on the nature and importance of plurality and of the steps that may be taken to address the problem that lack of plurality presents. Specifically, it notes that Ofcom defines the desired outcome of a plural market as,
“a) ensuring there is a diversity of viewpoints available and consumed across and within media enterprises and b) preventing any one media owner or voice having too much influence over public opinion and the political agenda”.
Leveson notes that the definition,
“seems to be generally accepted”.
Leveson then posed five key questions about plurality. He discusses in some detail the answers given in evidence to these questions. All the questions are important but, in the interest of time, I want to focus on just two: how should plurality be measured; and what form should any requirements to support plurality take and what sort of remedies should be available to deliver them? There are clearly many ways of setting a measure of plurality.
Ofcom considered three types of metric: availability, consumption and impact. Within this, it considered five different types of consumption metrics. Other witnesses spoke of the merits of revenue caps. The Ofcom proposal was very comprehensive but also very complicated. Leveson remarked on this when he said that,
“its complexity is also a disadvantage, in that it will be difficult for most people to understand and could come under sustained attack from those media providers who feel that they may be the subject of plurality concerns”.
I think there is a very important point here, which is that a complex system of ensuring plurality simply will not work. It will be opaque, user-unfriendly, difficult to explain and a bonanza for lawyers; and unlikely to produce simple, clear outcomes. Leveson’s recommendation on this area is that,
“Ofcom and the Government should work, with the industry, on the measurement framework, in order to achieve as great a measure of consensus as is possible on the theory of how media plurality should be measured before the measuring system is deployed, with all the likely commercial tensions that will emerge”.
Of course they should. However, there needs to be a strict timetable and a simple default mechanism for these discussions, otherwise all this is simply for the long grass.
In fact, there are simple proposals for a measurement framework. Both Claire Enders and Professor Barnett gave evidence on the notion of a simple revenue cap. Harriet Harman, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable were also open to the idea. It seems to me that a revenue cap is an essential starting point for any meaningful discussion of plurality. It has the merit of clarity and is related clearly to the real world. It reduces the need for bureaucratic or highly technical definitions and exceptions.
Whether or not a revenue cap is a central part of any future method of ensuring plurality, the second Leveson question is: what action can or should be taken if plurality rules are breached? At the moment, the existing and inadequate rules on plurality allow intervention only at the point of merger or acquisition. There are obvious problems with this. What about organic growth? There are hard questions here that should not be dodged. As with other markets where a company’s size is judged to be detrimental to the public interest, divestment must surely be an available remedy.
There are also obvious problems with the Leveson report’s brief recommendation on the internet in its section on plurality. The recommendation says simply that,
“online publication should be included in any market assessment for consideration of plurality”.
So they should, but it does raise the issue of what is meant by “publication”. Does this include Google and Facebook? Does it include Twitter? Arguably, these are all publications, but currently they do not have any obvious editorial function.
This is another area with perhaps an inbuilt and unfortunate invitation to complexity. It should not be like that. In fact, whatever rules, if any, finally emerge for plurality, they should be characterised by simplicity, ease of understanding and accessibility to common sense. That can be done for the internet, for example, by restricting considerations of plurality to those outlets that have an obvious and direct editorial influence on their content.
I repeat that regulation alone will not solve the problems addressed by Lord Justice Leveson. For example, the corrupting cosiness between politicians, the press and the police will not be stopped just by enforcing behavioural regulations. Politicians and the police have been too close to the media because of their perception of the media’s influence, and the size of this perceived influence is very often related very directly to the size of the media organisation. Regulation may stop criminal or shameful behaviour for a while, but it certainly will not stop undue influence. If undue influence does not stop, nor, in any enduring sense, will unacceptable media behaviour. Parts of the media in this country have felt themselves above the law. This is a cultural problem and is rooted in the establishment’s perception of the media’s power to damage, and that is related to size.
I end by asking my noble friend the Minister two simple questions. First, will he confirm to the House the Government’s commitment to addressing the plurality problem? Secondly, will he consider urgently bringing forward recommendations for a process and a timetable to complete the work on plurality only just begun by Lord Justice Leveson?
My Lords, I declare an interest: I was a journalist for 20 years and still turn out an occasional column, as reflected in the register. I was also asked by Lord Justice Leveson to submit written evidence, which I duly did.
Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry scored a line across the country’s psyche like no other Government-sponsored investigation in recent times. It pieced together in raw, stark detail a story of systematic failings on the part of a significant portion of the press to adhere to even the most rough and ready ethics, of newspapers and journalists casting aside seemingly all restraint and decency when gifted by technological advances with means of intrusion into public and private lives that only very secret sections of the British state possessed when I ceased to be a daily journalist in 1984.
The events and behaviour Lord Justice Leveson investigated were searing and in some instances scarcely believable. He wielded a vivid pen in reporting. His analysis is powerful and convincing. His prescriptions have commanded wide assent and approval, bar one crucial and problematic recommendation that any new arrangements for press regulation must be tipped by the metal of statute if they are to be capable of sharp and sustained application where what has gone before was blunt and ineffectual.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, I will quote Lord Justice Leveson. He acknowledges:
“By far the best option would be for all publishers to choose to sign up to a satisfactory self-regulatory regime”.
For that I think there exists a wide consensus, but the great divide in the post-Leveson debate is, to use his words again, what kind of “convincing incentives are required” for this to happen.
I admit that I may be suffering from a degree of déformation professionnelle from my journalistic days but I remain deeply uneasy about Parliament allowing the tread of statute to touch this particular terrain of our national life. The key definition of an open society is a country in which the state has an ever-present sense of its own boundaries and limits. If, as a Parliament, we place a piece of primary legislation here, even as a backstop, will we not be propelling our country through a valve, through which we will be most unlikely to return?
The Prime Minister has told the editors that “the clock is ticking”. So it is. Public as well as political concern is quickening that clockwork and I recognise that in being wary of statute, I am out of kilter with three-quarters of the population, individuals whom I greatly respect, such as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who has direct journalistic experience, and more seasoned journalists than myself such as Professor Brian Cathcart of Hacked Off. If I was a statute man, I would be happy with the crisp Independent Press Council Bill drafted by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill.
My worry is that if we reach for statute, all future developments are likely to be one-way. Think a decade or so beyond a Leveson law. Imagine a Government irritated, as Governments usually are, with a coarse and wilful press that refuses to acknowledge the wisdom, beauty and subtlety of their political programme. There is bound to be a rogue newspaper or two in operation—like rogue states, rogue newspapers will always be with us—behaving extremely badly. It will be all too easy for the aggrieved Government to argue that the first light-touch law was all right for 2013-14 and that the press behaved more carefully for a while in the shadow of the Leveson report, but that Government could argue that those lessons have been unlearnt and it is time to tighten up.
The self-dissolution of the Press Complaints Commission creates a real opportunity for improved regulation. The proposals of its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, for a new system of contracts, with the civil law in the background to give them bite, offers the publishers the chance to bind themselves in to a tougher, tighter and more sanctions-laden system of self-regulation. I know that this can be dismissed as promising “a better yesterday”—to borrow the rather unkind description of the old Social Democratic Party from the late and much missed Lord Dahrendorf. But I hold out a real hope for that approach and for the idea of respected figures—non- governmental and non-Ofcom figures—as the validators and overseers of the new arrangements and those appointed to operate them.
I do not think that a replica of the BBC-style royal charter is at all the way to do this. The BBC charter is reviewed roughly every 10 years and the merest glance at the 2006 charter shows just how intrusive this allows Governments to be in the institutional structures of the corporation’s governance.
At the risk of sounding Pollyanna-ish, to my mind, the events reported on by Lord Justice Leveson and the clarity of his analysis have proved to be no end of a lesson to the British media. There is at least a chance of Lord Justice Leveson’s “best option” of a self-regulation that works finally coming to pass amid the ruins of the Press Complaints Commission and the old Press Council that preceded it. However, I am the reverse of Pollyanna when it comes to Lord Justice Leveson’s wish for more restraint and greater transparency between the respective commanders of our political and media classes. That story has long been one of fluctuating combat and collusion, as captured by David Lloyd George, when he said of the press:
“What you can’t square, you squash; what you can’t squash, you square”.
It will take the second coming to put an end to that.
My Lords, I have not spoken on this issue previously. I am in favour of a free press unshackled by Parliament or government. In fact, I want an even freer press, but where privacy laws are not needed. Privacy laws will be misused by the rich and famous to cover up. We should not have laws that look like they are only for celebs to be able to collect loads of money.
We need to respond on behalf of the majority of people living in an alert democracy who want facts, opinions and lots of open comments. They are not fools and can make their own minds up, but they need to be able to complain and not be fobbed off. If they are on the receiving end of an untruth, they want the chance for an apology and a correction. If they see an untruth they should be able to complain. They need someone to listen. They want someone to go to who is not owned and controlled, lock stock and barrel, by those they complain about. A regulator that is both independent and objective will help people with a complaint and, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said, decent journalists who themselves want to be held to high standards. Over the next 18 months or two years, we will witness a great number of court cases where journalists, the police and others are held to account under the existing law. Everything we will witness came about under the existing, press-owned self-regulation process.
In preparing these few words, I read the 2012 Hugh Cudlipp lecture given by Jon Snow of Channel 4. Jon said that he never met that giant of post-war tabloid journalism but he mused about what Cudlipp would have made of today’s tabloid leadership: not a lot, I suspect. I met Hugh Cudlipp and his team in 1962, when he came to talk to the annual student journalist conference, and the year after when we persuaded him to address students at Aston University. He electrified us to go for those in power, search out what they were about and what they were up to, and remember that newspapers are about the people. Today, it appears that some press barons and journalists have removed themselves from the real world where the majority of people live. They have contempt for those they write about and take their readers for fools. Jon Snow said that the hacks in question who brought about Leveson,
“took some weird pleasure in urinating on our world”.
We need a regulator that people and journalists can trust; a regulator that above all knows what it is doing; a regulator that is objective, trustworthy and independent; and a regulator that editors do not fear if they print stories that are right in truth and justified. Snow pointed out—not much has been made of this—that the cutting edge of TV journalists are subject to regulation that seems quite effective. They can work within the so-called constraints that might be there. He also spoke about not wanting to find his own editors somewhere in the mix. Decent journalists want a system with an objective regulator but they would not want it presided over by their own editors.
Public trust is crucial. Lord Justice Leveson showed the way to engender that. Like him, I favour independent, objective self-regulation to maximise the buy-in. It is crucial that the buy-in is maximised but there is a need to give the regulator the kitemark from time to time to engender and preserve public trust. Who is to award the kitemark that the regulator is indeed objective, trustworthy and independent? Leveson also gave us the answer to that, which is dawning on people slowly. Contrary to the claims of editors and some Ministers, no parliamentary or government regulation of the press is required to achieve the solution in which the public will find trust. I will support the proposed recognition commission. Its only remit is to certify the regulation process—nothing to do with the press process, nothing to do with press content and nothing to do with the management of complaints. Therefore I support recommendations 1 to 24 of Lord Justice Leveson.
My Lords, when I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry, I tried to explain to Lord Justice Leveson that his report would be valuable even if the Government did not agree to the need for statutory control of the press. He replied by summarising what I was saying as tails he wins and heads he also wins. I believed that his report would be valuable in either event, and so it has proved. I am a big supporter of his recommendation that the system of self-regulation should be tougher and above all independent. However, I am not a great admirer of many of the things in his report. Let me briefly touch on some of them.
It is not surprising that the report does little to deal with the problem that caused the inquiry to be set up in the first place—namely, the illegal acts of phone hacking and bribery. They were criminal acts before Leveson was set up and they still are—and that is how they should be dealt with. I also share the horror that many noble Lords spoke of about some of the awful things that have happened in recent years, but Leveson did not give credit to the industry for the improvements it has in fact made over recent years—for example, in the treatment of children, particularly but not only the princes when they were small, coverage of hospitals and the sick, coverage of the dying and the treatment of the bereaved.
Leveson is also critical of Section 12 of the Human Rights Act, which was devised after I made a speech in this House on 5 February 1998—sitting exactly where the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is now. I pointed out that the way the Government were incorporating the Human Rights Act into our domestic law was to create a privacy law, which the Government said they did not want. Jack Straw rang me up and I had several meetings with him. We negotiated Section 12 to try and maintain a press not shackled by statutory control. I am not absolutely sure that our efforts were entirely successful but that is the basis upon which Section 12 came to be part of our law.
Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion about amending the Data Protection Act is again to reverse the changes that I negotiated with the late Gareth, Lord Williams of Mostyn, a former Leader of this House and a very experienced QC with massive media experience. We did that, as Lord Williams said, to protect investigative journalism, which we both thought was in the public interest. I am also doubtful that the statutory underpinning could be effectively enacted if it did not require Parliament to settle in the legislation most of the big issues that Lord Justice Leveson wanted kept out of the hands of politicians and the industry. I will refer to those in a moment. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Alli, that that is the fundamental question that is still unresolved.
Having said that, as far as I know them, I am a big supporter of the proposals that the industry is putting forward that can be implemented in a matter of months, whereas statute will take several years and will be hard fought and divisive. If the new system of self-regulation is satisfactory and fully independent, and the chairman and a majority of the board are persons of standing, no statutory underpinning should be necessary. I cannot conceive of a chairman and board not standing their ground in those circumstances.
As some noble Lords might remember, I retired from chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission over 10 years ago. The Press Complaints Commission of my day was not a regulator nor was it equipped to be. However, at no time did the industry not co-operate or not accept my jurisdiction. I made it quite clear to those in the industry that I would not stay for a single minute if they tried. The code I worked to was not strong enough and although I got the industry to tighten things up several times it was not a patch on the code that will now be implemented. A new self-regulatory system will be very different from the one I sought to administer. In my opinion, it should be on the following lines: the members of the Board should be totally unconnected with the industry; the industry should be bound to support the regulator financially by long-term civil contracts and to continue to pay its dues even if it was dissatisfied with some of the judgments it received; the code should be drawn up by editors but scrutinised by a body with a lay majority; and there should be a system of fines for serious transgressions. A new regulatory body on those lines, with a chairman and members of standing, would be perfectly able to do an excellent job. The industry would co-operate, for it would have no doubt of its fate if it did not.
Let me conclude by indicating why a system that requires statutory underpinning would be so difficult. First, what code would that be underpinning? The communications industry is moving so fast that the writ would probably be out of date before the Bill got Royal Assent. Secondly, there would be substantial questions over the human rights position, particularly of editors who elected to stay out of the new regime.
I shall try to put some of the other complications as simply as I can. If the new independent regulatory body is to receive approval, it will be necessary to set out the legal requirements it must meet before it can be recognised. The overseeing body will also have to be set up by statute and will have to have a legal constitution before it can grant recognition to the regulatory body—and, by common consent, that overseeing body cannot be Ofcom. If that is not already enough, Parliament will have to set out who will appoint the members of the overseeing body, who will have to be independent of politicians and the industry. As well as that, the law will have to define the legal arrangements that must be put in place with publishers that do not join the regulatory regime. I wonder whether a Bill to set all that out would end up, through Parliament, as an Act in quite the way that was intended when it began.
The Leveson report simply does not say how this will be done, which news organisations should be included and what should be left out. There are some vague references to online news services. Would we treat UK services differently from, say, United States services, where the freedom of the press is protected by their constitution? My fear is that if we go down the statutory road, the danger will be that we shall end up by requiring a licensing of the press and an end of a free press after hundreds of years.
My Lords, I am sorry to start on a slightly sour note but, in one regard anyway, the debate in your Lordships’ House will be less well informed than that at the other end. The House authorities have determined that we may not have printed copies of the full Leveson report, only of the summary. Of course, noble Lords could all access Leveson if they have 50 hours to sit in the Library reading it or were granted the skill, denied to some of us, to go through 2,000 pages on screen. The ground for the refusal was cost. I could go into that a great deal. I know it would be high if every Member of the Lords was given a copy. However, a compromise would have been to have given a copy to those who had put down their names to speak in this debate and who wanted it. This was turned down.
I asked the Clerk of the Parliaments whether he could provide any precedent for a report which was the subject of a specific debate in this House being denied to speakers. None has been cited. I know this is a subsidiary point but it is not unimportant since Leveson’s summary, although a good attempt, is not a proper reflection of the full weight of his report. I hope therefore that if noble Lords share my feelings on this matter, they will tell the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Chairman of Committees so, so that the House is not put in this invidious position ever again.
I speak as a former deputy to the editor at two national newspapers. I had responsibility at the Times for complaints, for the PCC and for libel. Whether that makes me a poacher turned gamekeeper or a gamekeeper turned poacher, I am not quite sure. I must say that I found some of the post-Leveson debate, although very interesting, a bit depressing because it seems that most of it has been making a mountain out of a molehill. There is really terribly little between 90% of the participants in the debate. All of us want an independent, self-regulatory system that works. None of us wants statutory control over content. Yet over this gnat of whether there should be statutory underpinning, we have strained and strained. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, for whose views on these matters I have the greatest respect, that a Permanent Secretary instructed by his Minister to find eight reasons why something could not be done would not have managed to exceed the efforts he just made at the end of his speech. That is why the actual Bills that exist to do this are so brief, succinct and effective.
The Prime Minister did not help with his remark that legislation would cross a Rubicon. Is it a Rubicon? Honestly, it is more the River Piddle after a prolonged drought. I do not think there is any slippery slope here. There is certainly none so long as it is clear that any statutory underpinning is to underpin the process by which wrong can be righted and not to get at the specific content of newspapers, which is a matter for them and their editors.
Having said that, I would prefer a minimum of legislation. There are well worn reasons of principle why this should be so, but I am afraid that mine is a pure matter of practice. The problems we have seen are largely a matter of rogue cultures in newspapers. Changes in culture are usually more successfully achieved if organisations embrace them from within rather than them being imposed from without. One reason why the Advertising Standards Authority, on which I once had the privilege to sit, is an effective authority is that the entire industry accepts it. If statute makes it harder for the press to understand the change in culture that is required, we should try and keep it to a minimum.
However, there is one problem which has not yet been resolved by the system of contracts proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. It is no good setting up the finest system in the world if some newspapers choose not to join it or, more insidiously, if they join it but keep on saying, “Oh, if you don’t do what we want, we’ll withdraw and you’ll lose our money”. That is what prejudices the bureaucracies of those organisations to listen to their press members and not to their independent members. I do not think we have cracked that one yet. I am not wholly confident that the incentive of better treatment from the courts for newspapers which sign up will be sufficient. This needs to be looked at further.
I have one other proposal, which bears on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. No one much likes the idea that Ofcom should frank the self-regulatory system. There is, however, an existing alternative: the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. It would be worth everyone having a look at that. It has the enormous advantage of being extremely low-profile and therefore in many ways ideally equipped to take on this demanding task. I ask those who are responsible in these negotiations to look at that.
It is crucial that the all-party negotiations should succeed, because only then will we have a stable basis for a system. I should like to see a system that minimised the need for legislation. If it can be done without, no one would be more delighted than I would. If it requires something, I hope that those on the press side will retain a sense of proportion about the small amount of statute that is required. If it can be done by agreement without statute, that would be a wonderful outcome, but let there be no doubt: if no such agreement can be reached, statute there must be, and statute that will work.
My Lords, I am pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, with whom I have shared a lot in my political career. I share his frustration at not having full copies of the report available. I have spent a lifetime in the regional and national press and I have joined the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, on the roll of honour at News International. I am saddened by what Leveson has revealed about the ethics and lack of judgment shown by certain sections of the national press. We should be absolutely clear that it is only certain sections, though, and by no means the majority of journalists or editorial staff throughout our newspaper industry. Newspapers are never going to be popular institutions; I think that it was Lord Rothermere who said that every day he was publishing things that people did not want published. However, a free and responsible press is central to our democracy, warts and all.
A lot of points have already been covered in this debate, so I shall simply confine myself to three issues that concern me. The first, as noble Lords might expect, is the regional press. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich said, Leveson rightly gives the regional press a pretty good bill of health in terms of its working practices, its respect and support for the work of the Press Complaints Commission, its commitment to its local communities and the respect and trust that it maintains with its readers. We should remind ourselves, as Leveson does, that 70% of adults read regional press newspapers, compared with only 56.8% of adults who read a national daily.
One of the great sadnesses is that the national press is now taking fewer journalists from the regional press who have served a full apprenticeship. Nothing beats journalists living and working in the communities where every day they are meeting their principal readers. That provides the best training for ethics and appropriate behaviour. It is also a good thing to be working for editors who are tough and disciplined on standards, not simply getting the most stories out of people. Journalist training is one of the principal issues that need attention following Leveson. The regional newspaper industry remains, as Leveson said, and as several speakers have mentioned, under financial pressure in the cyclical downturn. This provides big issues for the vibrancy of our local communities. Above all, we must not saddle our provincial press, already vulnerable, with a bureaucratic and burdensome regulation regime that it does not deserve.
The second issue is the importance of independent self-regulation. Although I remain sceptical about statutory involvement in press regulation, I accept the need for fundamental reform towards independent self-regulation. I certainly welcome the work of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral. Press regulation is being transformed under his proposals: it will be independent, it cannot have serving editors on it and it must have sanctions. It must also be resourced not simply to provide a complaints service but to audit governance and to conduct fuller investigations as required. In my view, the issues that have to be resolved are how to ensure that all titles are included and how to sustain the initial progress that the noble Lord is making and is going to make. I am attracted by incentives on the costs of civil litigation and an arbitration service to solve disputes, which will improve justice for individuals and assist publishers. If that is matched by a statutory verification process for publishers, though, the key issue is that the devil is in the detail; that will determine whether or not the proposals are acceptable.
The third issue is plurality. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, gave us an historical perspective of this and my noble friend Lord Sharkey has made a more specific analysis. Generally, the fact is that plurality as an issue is not getting the attention that it deserves following the publication of the report because the regulation of behaviour is getting all the public attention. We must not forget where we came in: but for Milly Dowler, the Culture Secretary was within days, if not hours, of agreeing that the same international company that had nearly 40% of our national newspaper market could also control the monopoly supplier of satellite broadcasting in the UK. Plurality is important because it has never been properly regulated. It has enabled an overpowerful, overdominant media owner to become too influential in all walks of our national life. Dominance breeds arrogance, as has been said, and arrogance has perverted the culture and the risk-taking, and indeed has probably encouraged criminal behaviour, in this powerful enterprise. They thought that they were untouchable. They had the politicians and the police in their pocket. It took the David of the Guardian and Milly Dowler to bring them down.
The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, has told the story about Conservatives in power. Let me tell you what life was like under new Labour. A shocking experience for me was to attend the retirement party in 2003 of the editor of the Sun, David Yelland; in effect, it was the crowning party for Rebekah Brooks. Pretty much the whole of the Labour Cabinet, with the honourable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, was there that night. This was no respectful attendance for a colleague stepping into retirement; it was a more familiar, kissy-kissy celebration than I would ever have anticipated. This was a meeting for colluding friends, supposedly.
I went up to one leading Labour figure, who had been savaged in the Sun in only that past year. I said to him, “What on earth are you doing here?”. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Ben, it’s one of the things we have to do”. It is ironic that the more people are close to power in this country, the more they feel that they must trade up to the powerful interests in the media. I am sure that the Liberal Democrats might even be tempted if this continued. The key must be not to have these powerful interests. Overdominance breeds contempt and arrogance in any market. It is strongly against our national interest, culture and democracy. Regulation in the interest of greater plurality must play a central part in the reforms following the Leveson report. It must not be overlooked.
My Lords, I am very pleased indeed to rise immediately after such a powerful endorsement of the need to look at plurality, with which I wholeheartedly agree. Concentration of power in too few hands is clearly not in the public interest, as has been proven to be the case.
This is an historic debate and an historic opportunity. It is an opportunity to support good journalism, the rule of law and freedom of speech. It is also an opportunity for us to reflect on the difference that has rightly been identified between the national and regional press, to remember that good journalism is alive and kicking in our country and to listen to those voices. However, this historic opportunity has been given to those before us on a number of occasions over the past 65 years. In fact, the last chance saloon for the press was first opened 65 years ago. Since then, last orders have been called on at least seven occasions. Time is therefore now of the essence.
There is an issue that we have to look at because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, will know, the greatest indicator of the future is our past. Therefore, if we wish to look at how the press may behave in the future, it is responsible for us to look at how it has behaved in the past. With recidivism, there comes a time to recognise when the opportunity to change is desired but may not actually be grasped and when the recidivists themselves are not able to change without a little help. Otherwise, it is an exercise of hope over experience. I hope that the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will find real support and success, but I say to him that experience causes me to believe that I would be unwise to share his optimism.
The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said that the gauntlet was being thrown down and the press had to take it up. Well, that gauntlet has been thrown down on innumerable occasions. In preparing for this debate, I thought that I would look back over the reports that have been given in the past. I counted Sir David Calcutt as one of my dear friends; I hope that that will not detract in any way from his sagacity. In 1990, he made his first report. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was then the Secretary of State for the Home Department and said about the last chance saloon:
“This is positively the last chance for the industry to establish an effective non-statutory system of regulation, and I strongly hope that it will seize the opportunity that the committee has given it. If a non-statutory commission is established, the Government will review its performance after 18 months of operation to determine whether a statutory underpinning is required. If no steps are taken to set up such a commission, the Government, albeit with some regret, will proceed to establish a statutory framework, taking account of the committee’s recommendations. It is now up to the press to take up the challenge that the committee has presented to it. I am confident that the response will be a positive one”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/6/1990; col. 1126.]
The press responded and Sir David Calcutt was asked to report again. This he did on 8 January 1993. This was 20 years—almost to the day—from our debate, and what did Sir David say? I quote from the summary of his report, paragraph 5, entitled “Assessment”:
“The Press Complaints Commission is not, in my view, an effective regulator of the press. It has not been set up in a way and is not operating a code of practice, which enables it to command not only press but also public confidence. It does not, in my view, hold the balance fairly between the press and the individual. It is not the truly independent body which it should be. As constituted, it is, in essence, a body set up by the industry, financed by the industry, dominated by the industry and operating a code of practice devised by the industry and which is over-favourable to the industry”.
He goes on to say in paragraph 7:
“It has been argued that two years is too short a time in which to judge the Press Complaints Commission. But the way forward was clearly spelt out in the Privacy Committee’s Report. In particular, the Committee stressed the need for the Commission to be seen as an independent body which would command the confidence of the public. Both the Committee, and subsequently the Government, gave a clear indication that this was the last chance for the industry to put its own house in order. It has to be assumed that the industry, in setting up the present Press Complaints Commission, has gone as far as it was prepared to go. But it has not gone far enough.
In my view, too many fundamental changes to the present arrangements would be needed. Nothing that I have learnt about the press has led me to conclude that the press would now be willing to make, or that it would in fact make, the changes which would be needed”.
That was 20 years ago. How much longer should we wait? Lord Justice Leveson has created the most Delphic, gentle, succinct opportunity for us to give the press a little extra encouragement, just so they know that last orders have finally—after 65 years—been called at the last chance saloon.
I agree with my noble friend Lord Alli. I sincerely hope that our Front Bench will remain robust, but if the Front Benches in this House need a little encouragement, then surely the power of the voices on the Back Benches would be enough to encourage them to see the light. I hope that no one in this House who supports freedom of the press and the rule of law will be silent.
My Lords, I thank noble Lords who referred to my family experience earlier in the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, spoke about Lord Justice Leveson’s compassion and sensitivity in enabling victims of press abuse to give evidence. I commend Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry and the manner in which it was carried out. He and his staff made the experience of giving evidence somewhat easier. The decision to give evidence was not an easy one. To be honest, I felt intimidated, as I know did many other victims of press misconduct. Surprisingly perhaps, I was concerned that my words, spoken on behalf of my family, yet again would be twisted by the press.
It has been suggested to me that everything is now in the open, that all victims of press misconduct and unethical press behaviour have now been dealt with. That is so far from the truth. The majority of victims are intimidated and do not take on the powerful press barons lightly. However, I recognise that there are many responsible and honest journalists who themselves need some protection in order to be able to work and to continue to work in an ethnical manner.
Recently, I attended some meetings arranged by Hacked Off. I am usually wary of getting involved with campaigning organisations but Hacked Off has impressed me hugely. It is the only organisation which is faithfully giving a voice to victims and keeping them informed. I ask the Minister to tell this House exactly how many meetings have taken place between government and representatives of victims since the report was published, and how many meetings have taken place with representatives of the press industry.
If any other industry was facing such public criticism and concern, the press would have been investigating that industry’s response very energetically. Why is it then that we do not know exactly what is going on behind the scenes? There are four draft Bills proposing one way or another to ensure that Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations will be implemented. In some ways, perhaps it does not matter which Bill is introduced as it surely will be amended. However, as a victim or, as I prefer to call myself, an expert by experience, I suggest that Hacked Off’s Bill is the most faithful to the Leveson report and, unsurprisingly perhaps, the least political. Given the Prime Minister’s supposed commitment to be guided by the views of victims, this Bill would be a good place to start. Perhaps I may suggest that Hacked Off’s Bill will be a necessary, transparent and democratic way of ensuring an effective regulator in the future.
The Leveson inquiry was not just about whether journalistic practice was legal or illegal. It was also about the culture and ethics of the press. I agree with my noble friend Lady Boothroyd that we need a cultural revolution in the press and in the country. I would add that the drip-drip effect of little lies and spin have contributed to the cynicism which has seeped into our daily lives.
I will give just one example from my experience. An article in one newspaper contained 28 supposed facts. It was quite a lengthy piece that went over two or three pages. It included photographs of people and places. Of those 28 facts, just two were correct. The others were fabricated and sensationalised. But this information was repeated by other journalists again and again in the same and in different newspapers. None of these journalists checked their information. They simply took it from the internet, reordered it, changed the emphasis and called it an exclusive. In my profession of medicine, that would be called plagiarism. My son-in-law has a creative suggestion that editors should have to give a star rating to all articles. Gossip and unchecked facts would get no stars, while five stars would require the journalist and editor to be able to defend vigorously what they have printed.
My noble friend Lord Trees, in his excellent maiden speech, explained the parallel between press regulation and professional self-regulation with statutory backing. As a member of the medical profession, I concur with his views.
I conclude my remarks by giving emphasis to my own victim test. In, say, two years’ time, will the British public be proud of our free press—proud because it is truthful and fair and respects everyone’s right to privacy and freedom from harassment? I say everyone, because I think that a celebrity who is well known only because of their skill in entertaining us has an equal right to their freedom. In two years’ time, will we have an honest industry that uses ethical and lawful methods and journalists and editors who can defend their sources? When the highest standards have been breached, will victims receive prominent and willingly given apologies? In short, will trust have been restored? I suggest that, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, did, that a little extra help is going to be needed.
My Lords, I am deeply sorry to hear of the experience with the press of the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, and I apologise on behalf of the press, of which I used to be a member.
I should perhaps disclose that I was chairman for nearly 20 years, until 1999, of United Newspapers, which subsequently became United News & Media. When I became chairman, the company owned many of the regional newspapers in Yorkshire and Lancashire. In 1985, we purchased Express Newspapers.
None of the witnesses to the Leveson inquiry questioned the assumption of authority over the future of a free press, ranging from Prime Ministers to proprietors or editors, except for Mr Gove. It was in danger of becoming more of an inquisition than an inquiry. Dozens of journalists have been arrested, their homes searched, contents removed and are on bail as police look for evidence of phone hacking. Add that to the Savile inquiry, with an 82 year-old man arrested in a dawn raid and the front door of a former weatherman smashed down, relating to an allegation dating back to the early 1970s, and some of these things seem to be getting a bit out of proportion. One wishes that the police would file charges and move on.
What happens at the BBC? A £2 million inquiry tells us all we already know—that there is a lack of leadership, bureaucracy, and more journalists than the whole of Fleet Street. And what happens apart from the odd staff departure? Nothing, apart from large cheques. Where are the resignations right at the top? Compare this to the treatment of the press when it has the establishment against it—although much of the behaviour cannot be excused.
As is well known and has been stated, what is news? In many cases, it is something that someone does not want to be reported. Even if we ignore what appears to be some bias in the advisers to Lord Justice Leveson’s committee, it is obviously an honest attempt to try to find a solution to current misdeeds. The motives of the high-profile celebrities who are in favour of state regulation should concern us all. Many of them have somewhat dubious private lives, from fathering illegitimate children to sex orgies. Most of them employ or have employed public relations consultants to promote themselves. How else would they be so well known? They want as much press coverage as they can get, as long as it is on their terms. They are resentful when newspapers publish less flattering stories about them which do not fit their PR image. We even have one of them, Mr Grant, stating that looking at history shows the need for state-backed regulation. My history is not very good but, as I recall history, it has been a fight to free the press from legal restraints.
The spark that led to the setting up of the Leveson inquiry by the Prime Minister was the Guardian stating that News of the World journalists had deleted voicemails of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler. This turned out to be untrue. But then look at the investigation; the top lawyer said that the inquiry was not opposed to the Guardian campaign over the News of the World phone hacking or the Telegraph’s revelations about MPs’ expenses. The first of these campaigns was based on information from police sources, the second on documents handed over by an informant.
No one would deny that some newspapers have been guilty of gross excesses and illegal behaviour and the worst one has been closed. However, before we continue bashing Rupert Murdoch—of course, he is too powerful—let us remember what he has achieved. He was known in Australia as the Dirty Digger a long time ago, but he has built a huge business, albeit with a vast amount of borrowings which very nearly crippled him. He was at the forefront, after Eddie Shah, who seems to have been forgotten, of reducing the manpower in Fleet Street, more or less at the same time as many others of us were talking about it, and restoring some sanity to the industry. He built Sky TV from nothing. Yes, he made mistakes—every successful man does—and, yes, he phoned his editors on a regular basis, especially on a Saturday night, and instigated personal attacks in his newspapers on, among others, his competitors, of whom I was one. We now have to deal with the consequences of his journalists’ illegal acts—illegal, as has been stated, under current law. If we are concerned about laws controlling the press, look at libel laws; they impose huge restraints on the press.
The Leveson inquiry, as many of these inquiries do, seems to take on a life of its own. Of course Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers want to be friendly with editors and journalists and of course they meet the heads of large companies, large accounting firms, leading lawyers, doctors, scientists and a broad spectrum of those who have senior positions and influence. This seems to me to be perfectly normal. I do not think it abnormal either that one of the first calls that an editor might get on being appointed is a congratulatory one from the Press Office in Downing Street, and in due course an invitation to meet the Prime Minister. I am sure that many people ask for favours from senior politicians. I recall a meeting with the then Prime Minister at which Mr Rupert Murdoch, Mr Conrad Black, as he then was, Mr Robert Maxwell, Lord Vere Rothermere and myself were all present—a distinguished group, I am sure you would agree—to ask that VAT should not be applied to newspapers. It was not, but it might not have been anyway. I do not remember who did all the talking at that meeting, but with all those egos around I recall that mine was insufficient to get a word in sideways.
Phone hacking can, and probably will, be prosecuted under current legislation. I do not believe that further legislation is the answer to the behaviour that has occurred. It would involve politicians and we have only to look at the report before Christmas in the Telegraph about a certain MP’s expenses, and the Telegraph’s assertion that pressure was applied from Downing Street, to realise how dangerous legislation, and the inevitable involvement of politicians, would be.
I have to agree that the Press Complaints Commission has been more or less totally ineffective. Editors have been far too involved in the process, but it has sought to impose curbs on photo intrusion and coverage of the sick and children, among others. Let us by all means have a strong and independent self-regulatory regime, as proposed by Leveson and as is currently being prepared by the newspaper industry, without legislative backing. Whatever system is adopted, it will inevitably be difficult to define standards and what is acceptable. As the working group of the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, stated, any code should be technologically neutral, not just confined to the newspaper and periodical industry. Clearly, some of the recent illegal behaviour is totally unacceptable, as are some of the excesses, but this must be a question of judgment and I cannot see how we can legislate for that, nor should we.
As has been pointed out, whether a law to regulate the press is illegal under the Human Rights Act, as it would mean that the press had to meet higher standards than anyone else, I am not qualified to judge. However, to have a law regulated by Ofcom is clearly unacceptable, as the Prime Minister has said. No state quango where the members are appointed by the state should be involved. Furthermore, Ofcom has powers to decide on political bias, rules which have never applied to the press. The same reservations apply to a royal charter.
Since the press holds the Government to account, the Government clearly must not regulate newspapers. I am sure that some politicians want to get back at the press for disclosing all their shenanigans over expenses. There has been some mention of changing culture in the debate. Speaking with my non-newspaper interests in mind, changing culture is extremely difficult. Look at parliamentary expenses, for example.
The constitution of the United States declares that government,
“may make no law … abridging the freedom … of the press”.
A Leveson Act would give politicians an entry point which they could change in future to get the press they want. The arbitration service proposal by Leveson gives me cause for concern. At present, the person offended against can complain to the PCC. Under the new proposals anyone can do so. This really opens the floodgates. If such a body is to be appointed, some control must be in place to deal with frivolous complaints and compensation lawyers—maybe a meaningful advance payment, non-refundable in the event the complaint is not upheld. At a time when all newspapers are facing a declining market, many running at a loss, there must be some limit on costs and awards.
I apologise for going on a bit, but I think that I am the only former chairman of a national newspaper group here and noble Lords will have to forgive me—a big windbag.
The inquiry seems to be unaware of the critical financial situation of many in the press. Twenty-five years ago the circulation of daily national newspapers was 16 million; today it is just over 8 million. In 1959, when I started work, the circulation of paid-for evening newspapers in London was more than 3 million; now, just before the Evening Standard went free, it was under a half a million. Twenty-five years ago it was estimated that 75% of the adult population read a daily paper; now the estimate is less than 50%. There is barely a mention of the proliferation of TV channels or the internet, to which newspapers are migrating. Newspapers are gatherers and disseminators of information, be it hard copy or new media. The internet, if regulated, would migrate elsewhere.
In other words, good as the report is in many places, and although clearly the press must improve its standards and behaviour, the arrival of the internet has led to a rapidly declining economic situation for the newspaper and magazine industry—a decline that started with the proliferation of TV channels. The stable door has opened and the horse has bolted.
My Lords, I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, that while he makes a few good points, the defensive tone and aggression of his remarks are hardly likely to encourage anyone to believe that the press is capable of putting its own house in order.
However, I want to focus on the issue of plurality. That has received relatively little attention in the public debate and, until the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, rose to speak, relatively little attention in this debate, although my noble friends Lord Donoughue and Lady Jay mentioned it. A truly free press requires diversity of opinion; diversity of opinion means real diversity and plurality of ownership; and plurality of ownership, in a world of ruthless capitalism that the press occasionally advocates, requires effective regulation of competition and merger policy.
Some of my best friends are journalists, and some of them even work for the Murdoch press. I do not necessarily believe that the Murdoch empire is uniquely evil; nor do I believe that its journalists and editors are the only ones capable of the dark arts of attacking personal privacy and breaking the law. However, the Murdoch empire is uniquely dominant and dangerously powerful. But this goes beyond Murdoch. If you look at the totality of the media—electronic as well as print, regional as well as national—they are subject to a high degree of oligopoly and are close, in some cases, to monopoly. They are under the control of relatively few proprietors, service providers and editors. Whether those individuals are malign or benign, it is a dangerous situation for a democracy that does not provide a truly free media.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, I was disappointed that Lord Justice Leveson did not spend more time on plurality and I am also disappointed that the four Bills that are before us do not deal much, if at all, with that issue. However, Leveson gave us a lead. The last few recommendations in his report set out a bit of a route map, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, suggested. The most important aspect of that route map is the recommendation that the thresholds of levels of competition in relation to the news media must be lower and probably considerably lower than in competition policy in relation to other sectors. That leads Lord Justice Leveson on to say that we must concentrate on the measurement of plurality, as the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, said, and that the regulators—Ofcom or possibly the new Competition and Markets Authority—should look at ways in which that plurality could be regulated and enforced. He also suggests, because the point where the law at present intervenes is largely on acquisitions and mergers, that there should also be periodic reviews of the ownership pattern of the media and that should extend to the electronic media and online publications as well as the print media. He suggests also that the Secretary of State should continue to develop the ideas of public interest. Although those propositions may not have received the same attention and may not be in the same detail as some of the other propositions from Leveson, they do provide a basis and a package on which the Government ought now to be basing their propositions in relation to plurality and competition within the media sector.
This is not the first time I have raised this. When we had our double-handed presentation of the Leveson report just before Christmas, I asked the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who was giving the Liberal Democrat version of the Government’s reaction, whether they were about to make propositions on the diversity front, and in particular whether they could possibly use the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, which is currently before this House and is changing the whole basis of competition policy, to put in specific clauses relating to media competition and media structure. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, did not say yes and he did not say no. What he did say was that it was above his pay grade. Since the lamented former Leader of the House, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was sitting next to him, it was presumably above his pay grade as well. I raised it again during the Committee stage of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, where the noble Lord, Lord Marland, one of the other Banquo’s ghosts from the Front Bench, also said it was above his pay grade, but explicitly said it was the Prime Minister’s pay grade.
It may be a bit late to insert such a provision into a Bill which is already going through this House and which has already passed through the Commons. It may, in any case, deserve a stand-alone Bill. But the issue of plurality in news media is an important one for the Government to grasp. It does not have the same level of controversy that we have seen in terms of the regulation of media behaviour and it could be worked on now and brought before this Parliament within a relatively few months. I would hope to hear from the Minister today that that is indeed the way in which the Government are thinking. I am sorry that the public debate and this debate have focused on it so little.
However, I will make one remark that may be of slight comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, and to the press in general, and may upset some of my colleagues. I am in favour of Leveson’s propositions in relation to underpinning by statute a voluntary system. I think he has got it about right. My misgivings relate to something to which the noble Lord, Lord Bew, referred in relation to Northern Ireland. In the course of history, we have had on the one hand the kind of actions of which we are complaining in the press which are already mostly illegal—from phone hacking through to intimidation. On the other hand, many of the great exposures of wrong-doing in high places, private as well as public, have required somebody to break the extant law for them to be exposed, whether breaches of the Official Secrets Acts, breaches of contracts, or indeed the kind of whistle-blowing that we are more familiar with these days. The development of a transparent democracy requires on occasion the press and the media to take on the law in that respect.
It seems to me that the central job of the form of regulation that Lord Justice Leveson recommends and which I can support requires us to say clearly when the public interest overrides the effects of those laws. Public interest does not mean public prurience but there is often a public interest in getting information which, without breach of those laws or contracts, would never see the light of day. That is a difficult matter for all of us but it is one which a recognition commission on the one hand and the proposed self-regulating structure on the other can take on board.
However, the one message I would leave with the House, with the Government and with the political leadership who are looking for some consensus on this issue is: deal with plurality as soon as you can, otherwise all this will be for nought.
My Lords, like other speakers, I feel that we owe a great debt of gratitude to Lord Justice Leveson. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, on the Front Bench, I also think that we owe a huge debt to those who had the courage to come before Leveson and give evidence. What came out of Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry was what many of us had long suspected and feared: it was damning and shaming, a stop-at-nothing culture and an industrial scale of telephone hacking, and there would have been much more in the report about telephone hacking if a number of cases had not been sub judice.
Lord Justice Leveson also concluded that there was wilful disregard for decency, objectivity and accuracy. Accuracy! Good heavens—whatever next? The only time that I was ever shocked by the subject of accuracy in relation to the press was when I gave an interview to an American glossy magazine and the next day I was rung up by a lady from Chicago who said, “I’m the fact checker”. I said, “What?”. She repeated, “I’m the fact checker”. That is the only occasion that I was ever approached by a fact checker from a newspaper to check the facts of what had been said. However, what was shocking in Lord Justice Leveson’s findings were the episodes involving the Dowlers, Christopher Jefferies and the McCanns. They have been referred to so often that we have become anaesthetised to the horror of their stories, yet they were truly horrific.
What has been the reaction of the press to the Leveson report? In many cases, it has been a complete lack of contrition. There could not be a greater contrast than the eloquent apology and contrition expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and many newspapers. They have been in completely opposite directions. In some cases, newspapers also ignored specific criticisms that were made of them and their editors. Not a word was printed about the specific criticisms of individual newspapers. However, since Leveson the press have attempted to frame the debate within a particular parameter. The choice, we are told, is between statutory regulation and freedom of the press, but there can be statutory regulation and freedom of the press, as Denmark and Ireland have shown. However, that is not the choice that we are being given.
Statutory regulation is not being proposed. What Lord Justice Leveson proposed is independent regulation free from excessive domination by the industry itself. That regulation is to be validated by a statutorily underpinned body. Leveson’s proposals do not give any rights to Parliament, the Government or the regulator to prevent newspapers publishing anything; nor would his recommendations allow Parliament, the Government or the regulator to prohibit the publication of anything. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—who I thought got right to the heart of the matter—talked about the danger of tightening the legislation, but I think that there is a distinction to be drawn. A monitoring body will look at the whole scene overall at periodic intervals—after two years initially, then three years and then another three years. There is nothing in the legislation that could be tightened to become a vehicle for censorship.
Of course it is right that the Prime Minister should warn us to think very carefully before we pass any legislation that refers to the press. He referred to paragraph 71 of the Leveson report and stated:
“Once we try … writing a law that provides for statutory underpinning that describes what the regulatory authority does, what powers it has and how it is made up, we soon find we have quite a big piece of law. That is the concern. We need to think very carefully before crossing that Rubicon”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/12; col. 455.]
Is it really going to be quite a big piece of law? We have the privilege of having three or four Bills drafted for us: by the noble Lord, Lord Lester, by the Labour Party and by the Hacked Off group. They have served a very useful purpose. Do they really justify adverts comparing Lord Justice Leveson to Presidents Mugabe and Assad? Are they really chilling and overprescriptive? They do not write the press complaints code into law. They do not describe what has to be in newspapers. They do not describe the procedures that have to be followed.
As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said in his short and forceful speech, we have to draw a distinction between the self-regulatory body that does the regulating —and directing, if there is any—and the body that is just doing periodic monitoring every few years of how effectively the regulatory body is performing its task.
I suggest that no Rubicon is being crossed. As the noble Lord, Lord Trees, pointed out in his excellent maiden speech, the duties and powers of our courts are governed by statute, but that does not mean that our judges are controlled by politicians or the Government of the day.
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, used the word “touch” and said that it would be wrong if the law even touched on the area of the press. There are already some statutory underpinnings of press regulation. Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1988 refers to the press complaints code. Why is it there? It is there because the press asked for the code to be recognised in statute.
Some noble Lords argued that the press should be restrained only by law. That seems to be rather like arguing that when a rogue trader in an investment bank commits a fraud, loses the bank £1 million and is jailed for doing so, there is no need for the bank or the FSA to look at its compliance procedures. One needs to use both the law and compliance procedures to ensure that such situations do not arise again.
The Prime Minister rightly said that the Leveson report would and should be judged by the responses of the victims. They have said that they regard the recommendations of the report as the minimum that is necessary. They do not regard a self-regulator as independent and efficient unless there is an agreed system of checks on it. We should accept their verdict. We must not let them down. It is not enough yet again to repaint, refurbish and refit with a few shiny new brass fittings the last chance saloon. That would not be a satisfactory response.
My Lords, I was one of the Peers who went to the Leader of the House to ask that this should be a full-day debate. The quality of the contributions that we have heard proves that it was right to do so. What is also relevant is that many victims have been able to hear what has been a very consensual debate—with one or two exceptions—demonstrating the strength and knowledge of this House and the determination, expressed in particular in the remarks of my noble friend Lord Alli, that those of us who do not occupy positions of power in the House still have a voice that can speak for the victim.
In the past half-hour we saw a very powerful vignette. We heard a very moving speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, about the dreadful experiences that she went through. Those of us who are parents must take that to heart. The noble Baroness was followed by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, who in his remarks acknowledged that change has to happen. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, epitomises some of the difficulties that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, will encounter in seeking to put in place a voluntary model of press regulation that is not underpinned by statute. I have a great regard for and admire the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—he is probably one of the very few people who can take on the press barons and grandees—and he made the powerful point that what Lord Justice Leveson is recommending is not statutory regulation of the press.
Prior to the publication of the report there was a powerful campaign from the press suggesting that there was going to be statutory regulation, and afterwards in both editorials and advertisements we saw that idea promulgated. Frankly, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks. Lord Justice Leveson went off to Australia—and in whose interest is it that we know the price of his hotel room? I know the hotel that he stayed in, I know where the grandees of the press go for dinner when they are in Sydney, and I know that the price of Lord Justice Leveson’s hotel room would not pay their wine bill for one night’s dinner. It is a symbol of the extent to which they do not get it.
The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, made the point that the circulation of national newspapers has gone down from 16 million to 8 million. That is not only because of the internet but because newspapers nowadays are too often a part of the entertainment industry—they are more comic than educator and people are drifting away from them as a consequence.
At one stage in my less than illustrious career I was in charge of complaints in a newspaper. I was not part of editorial but part of management and, believe me, that is a big difference in newspapers. Editorial departments are not democracies but self-perpetuating oligarchies and it is the responsibility of management to bow to the will of editorial. I could get away with murder if there was a complaint from someone who was annoyed that their new white paintwork had been dirtied by the nasty ink that comes off the newspapers, but heaven forfend that I should raise something to do with editorial. I often felt guilty if I did raise a complaint with an editor because the person who had complained would often become the object of a vendetta from the newspaper. All of us who have had cause to complain to newspapers know that that happens.
I want to concentrate the rest of my remarks on one particular element of what Lord Justice Leveson said, which relates to my experience in dealing with complaints. Lord Justice Leveson said quite plainly that there was a failure of systems of management and compliance. The argument that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, made about the change and the move to the internet is very important because it creates a culture where some of these well-paid jobs in newspapers—and we saw an indication of that yesterday with the revelation of what Sir Paul Dacre earns—are at risk because of the pressure to increase and maintain circulation. The important commercial relationship is not between the newspaper and the reader—the reader is just a way of keeping count—but between the newspaper and the advertiser. That is what makes the profit for most newspapers other than the regional ones which have been praised so highly in Lord Justice Leveson’s report as well as this afternoon.
There is a need for those who run newspapers to recognise that they have a responsibility of governance, because if we do not get a grip of what is happening in editorial departments the whole business will become imperilled. The dogs that did not bark in all of the scandals around newspapers were those who manage the newspapers. Where were the board directors who said that there is a crisis of governance in this business? Yes, advertisers withdrew copy near the end of the News of the World, but where were the advertisers from ethical organisations—particularly the one that is close to my own heart, the Co-operative—when these stories were being published about the McCanns, Milly Dowler and so on. There is a crisis of governance in the management of newspapers that needs to be addressed. Some of them are plcs and some are privately owned, but it is incumbent on those who invest in and deal with these companies to urge them to put their house in order. They must ensure that systems of compliance and governance, which are de rigueur in other areas of industry, are in place to deal with complaints.
My final point concerns the ethical training of journalists. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, talked about the training in journalism that she received at the BBC. I was trained at the BBC as well, although not as fully as the noble Baroness. One of the tragedies of the rundown of the regional press is the reduction in its involvement in the training of journalists. Journalism is increasingly becoming a graduate profession. There is a necessary reliance on making sure that journalists understand the law, but I would contend that there is a need to ensure that a journalistic education takes into account ethics as well. It is necessary for the industry in all its different guises to turn its attention to the training of journalists.
I began my career wanting to be a journalist. With the noble Lord, Lord Faulks, I did a short spell on the Privacy Commission at the BBC, and I have to say that when I heard what happened to the victims of newspapers, I was ashamed of my past in journalism. I am not talking about the big, glamorous stories, although even they were heartbreaking, but about the stories of people who had killed themselves as a result of the shame brought to their families as a consequence of publicity. I have seen young girls who perhaps are mesmerised by the fame of footballers lose all contact with their families. I believe in a free press, but I also believe in a responsible press, and this country believes in that too.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the wise words we have just heard from someone with experience of this industry and from others with the same kind of experience who have spoken. Unfortunately, my noble friend Lord Watson of Richmond has had to pull out of today’s debate. He has asked me to convey his apologies and to emphasise, rather along the same lines of the speech just made by the noble Baroness, that if the press does not understand the human rights of individuals on whom it reports, it can lead to some of the worst examples of bad behaviour. I am not an expert on the industry because I am a politician and a consumer of the press, but I have concluded that we do need a free press in this country and that it would have been relatively a very free press indeed if it had not been dominated by the controversial visitor from Australia many years ago who acquired the Times and the Sunday Times in dubious circumstances. That has already been explained in the debate by at least one speaker. I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, said.
The dismay I felt as an onlooker at this complicated field before Christmas at the time when this debate was postponed concerned the award to Rebekah Brooks of, I believe, £11 million in severance pay as a result of her departure as editor of the News of the World. It did not seem to produce the indignation and anger that I thought would have been relevant. Does that not say it all about the attitude of the boss man and his cronies who run the world’s most unappetising newspaper network? It is the ultimate two fingers of defiance from Rupert Murdoch after the pretend grovelling during the Select Committee hearings and all the rest of it. In a fascinating book written by Tom Watson MP and Martin Hickman, Dial M for Murdoch, published by Penguin Books, the section from page 268 onwards is revealing about his character and background. Incidentally, I am reminded of Murdoch’s sneering comment to Lord Justice Leveson that apparently he is one of the few people in the world who still reads Le Monde. Rather than actually answering any of the relevant questions, Murdoch chose to make other sneers which I shall quote briefly to illustrate. He used the occasion to settle old scores, criticising former editors who had later questioned his methods. He said that editor David Yelland was drunk all the time at the Sun. Andrew Neil found it,
“very profitable to get up and spread lies about me”.
The last is the preposterous remark that Colin Myler,
“would not have been my choice as editor of the News of the World”.
A previous speaker said that the owners would be suffering from illegal behaviour by journalists, but I think that it is probably the other way around. How reminiscent of the famous old Mafia trials in the US. All these appearances from this person remind us too of the cozy relations, unfortunately, between politicians of all parties and the unimpressive world leader of the newspaper industry. Now we have to contend with the reality of the mass destruction of e-mails, which would have been even more embarrassing had that reached the authorities now investigating through the Metropolitan Police.
Returning to the compensation for loss of office for Mrs Brooks, the rest of the News of the World staff fired on the spot must be rigid with anger and resentment. We remind ourselves that the insult—relative as well as absolute—to the long-suffering Dowler family is monumental. That is the ethos and nature of an international press operation which considers the word “ruthless” to be compulsory. How the Murdoch brigade must be laughing at the pulling-the-punches response of naive people in the law and politics as to what now needs to be done. The arrival of this man in the UK years ago completely wrecked the reputation of British newspapers, which were relatively decent—noble even—in the days of quite ruthless press barons like Beaverbrook, Rothermere and Thomson. Certain standards were maintained.
We must now have a system of press supervision, and regulation, in the proper sense of that word, which is underscored by the legal support system. It is not only the reckless Mr Murdoch—whose now sadly missed and highly respected mother should have told him to behave properly years before he came to Britain— but the other unattractive denizens. The owners of the Daily Star, the Daily Express, the extremist Daily Mail and the tax haven dwellers who own the Daily Telegraph all now need a proper system of supervision that prevents them from ruining the lives of ordinary people with falsehoods, brutal doorstepping and misquoting, and from engaging in the ruthless harassment of the Royal Family, abuse by long-lens cameras and all the rest of the sordid paraphernalia.
I believe I am correct in assuming that all these owners avoid, or even evade, UK personal taxes while pontificating about this country in boring editorials and mendacious articles. If I have been unfair to any of them individually, I will be delighted to set the record straight at once, but I believe that is the sad and tragic case when it comes to those who happen to own the British newspapers, unlike in many other countries.
The Prime Minister’s response was, I believe, overpartisan to the overmighty press excess that we have already witnessed. Producing a giant Bill would be a mistake but so is saying there will be no statutory back-up. Like others in this debate, I am glad to see some psychological coming-together now of all the parties about the urgent need to get this right and between the Liberal Democrat leadership in the Commons and Labour on some of Harriet Harman’s proposals in the other place. The deputy leader of the Opposition in the other place did, I think, get the balance as right as you can get it with the proposed six-clause draft Bill. It needs to be a brief piece of legislation, which would aim to create a regulator apparatus with a legal guarantee of effectiveness and independence. The Lord Chief Justice and his fellow judges would, under those proposals, consult expert assessors to ensure compliance with the new press law. It is possible to maybe take some parts of that and create a package between all the parties. I hope that that will be so.
Freedom of the press is an equally vital element of the new structure and would also be enshrined in statute. This reassurance is vital for the vast number of decent, well behaved journalists who do not admire the Murdoch method. Whatever package is painfully constructed after vast consultation and debate, it will be quite a complex piece of legislation. The shorter it is, the better, but it can and must be done. At last Britain has the chance to get away from the sinister grip of Murdochian sensationalism and false assertions and to get close again to the usually higher standards we still see, mercifully, in the press on the continent or in Scandinavia. We can get back to the great newspapers in Britain that people enjoyed. As the noble Baroness said in her speech just now, they were not comics, they were newspapers. Now, they are just masquerading as newspapers and are comics. That can be done.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, with whom I have a commonality of view on so many subjects. It is necessary to approach the question of press freedom from the standpoint of an analytical sceptic—a sceptic because claims to press freedom so often proceed from self-interest, and analytical because they are so often based purely on assertion. The freedom of the press is a shibboleth, an article of faith before which we are expected to make ritual obeisance. Moreover, it is something that is usually presented as unitary and indivisible, whereas any serious reflection shows it to be a highly complex concept, comprising diverse so-called rights, between which important distinctions need to be made that properly lead to differences in treatment.
In a few minutes it is not possible to do more than sketch the contours of the sort of discussion that needs to be had. The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, has shown the way by undertaking a lot of the analytical spadework. I will mention just four of the interests that need to be distinguished: individual freedom of speech; the right to privacy, which may vary from one individual to another; the power of media moguls and press barons; and the interest of the press in freedom from political interference. This is perhaps what people most often mean by press freedom.
My orientation to these interests and the rights that are said to go with them differs quite sharply from one to another. I surprised myself by how much more passionate I felt about the threat to freedom of speech constituted by the fatwa against Salman Rushdie than I did about the threat to people’s livelihoods constituted by the economic policies being pursued in the 1980s—and that is saying something, because I felt pretty passionate about those as well. We need stronger protection of the right to privacy. Perhaps for that reason among others, I care much less about the right of newspapers and journalists to print whatever they like.
I remember AH Halsey once beginning a radio talk by saying that he did not read the papers very much because they were full of nothing but trivia, inaccuracy and lies. I have a friend who has spent a lot of time in Russia in the past 20 years, telling the Russians about British institutions. She says that the press there is actually much freer than we are customarily given to understand. By contrast, the Russians look rather askance at the kind of press that we have here, where people assume a licence to indulge in character assassination of political leaders and anyone who enjoys a prominent place in society, often on quite spurious grounds in pursuit of a partisan agenda, and present the issues of the day in a manner that renders rational debate well nigh impossible.
All this is perhaps rather abstract, but it should ensure that we take claims of press freedom with a healthy dose of salt. If these considerations were not enough, the abuses of which we are all aware and which Lord Justice Leveson has catalogued in detail put the matter beyond doubt. Then there is the arrogance and lack of contrition on a scale matched only by the bankers, to which the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, and others have referred. Finally, the pre-emptive campaign to undermine Leveson and the bogus and absurdly inflated prophecies of doom were a system of regulation to be introduced mean that the press has little respect left.
At this point, I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, not only for the impressive speech that he has made today, which underlined the points I have just been making with far greater power and authority than I could muster, but for the campaign that he has waged on these issues with great independence of mind.
For us to have press freedom, it needs to be recognised that it is a qualified freedom. Given the way that freedom has been serially abused, I would add that it should be a regulated freedom. It is sometimes said that regulation is not necessary and that the abuses complained of normally involve breaches of the law for which legal remedies are available. All that is necessary is for people to enforce the law—for the law, as we know, is as open to all as the Ritz Hotel.
So what is concretely to be done? Let us be clear what Leveson does not recommend. First, he does not recommend a compulsory system of regulation; he recommends a voluntary system of independent regulation. Secondly, he does not recommend a system of statutory regulation sitting behind or underneath a system of independent regulation; instead, he recommends a process by which an independent regulatory system devised and set up by the publishers themselves can be verified by a recognition body to provide confidence that it is working. Thirdly, he does not recommend that Ofcom has to be the independent verifier; he favours Ofcom but it could equally be what he calls a recognition commission or commissioner. In addition to his system of verified independence, Leveson proposes that the press should have guarantees in law from government interference and special costs protection in the courts as an incentive to participate in the system of self-regulation. Self-evidently, legislation will be necessary to deliver those things, but that is not statutory regulation and the press should welcome them. It does not get more light-touch than Leveson. The victims certainly wanted more. The royal charter is a busted flush.
The Prime Minister showed leadership in setting up the Leveson inquiry. If we are not to be back here in 10 or 15 years’ time, he should show the same qualities in accepting its key recommendations. After listening to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland, if I was a betting man I am not sure how much money I would put on not being back here again anyway—but Leveson is our best hope. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, for whom I have great respect, worried that Leveson will take us to the top of a slippery slope. I say to him that Leveson is our last hope of avoiding that slippery slope.
My Lords, I listened with great interest to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Low. It reminded me of the times that I enjoyed sharing a Bench with him before finally the politician in me recovered control of my actions.
This has been a marvellous debate. A lot of very good speeches have been made and, as they were, I struck out various things in my notes. In terms of striking things out, particularly galling was the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. My notes started off by referring to the elephant in the room that was largely ignored by Lord Justice Leveson: the internet. After my noble friend’s speech dealing with the internet, there is little left to say, so my comments on that will be a little tangential. The internet is obviously hugely important. It and broadcasting have already changed the nature of the print media hugely. The internet and broadcasting now do almost all that is necessary to disseminate news as information. The newspapers do not really do that, although they carry some news. They are always behind the ball when chasing both the internet and broadcasting. The newspapers now are into news as entertainment and into comment.
The print media are also declining. I found very interesting the speech about that by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich, as well as that by my noble friend Lord Inglewood. Some noble Lords worry that we will be back in the last chance saloon in another 15 or 20 years’ time, but I very much doubt if the print media will be here then. With print we are dealing with the weakest element of the media and one that is rapidly declining. The really important element—the internet—has a much looser framework. That is putting it very mildly and vaguely. None the less, because of what has happened—which is important—there is pressure now for a journalism that is more ethical and conducted properly. There are a couple of difficulties with that because the terms “proper behaviour” and “acting ethically” are easy to enunciate but start defining them in terms of newspaper operation and they become extremely difficult.
Then we have the point, with which I agree, made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty: that one of the valuable things that the press does is sometimes to act unlawfully and unethically in order to bring attention to really important stories. We want that to continue, so we have to reconcile ourselves to it—although it may be said that it could be covered by public interest defences, which are developing. One little thing I have noticed while thinking about this is that examples of unethical behaviour would of course involve the reception by the Daily Telegraph of stolen property, for which it paid a bribe. There might be legal issues with regard to that but, none the less, it was an important story and worth bringing to our attention.
I disclosed my general approach to this issue on 15 February, when a Question came up on it and I asked whether there was not,
“an overriding public interest in the continued existence of a free press”.—[Official Report, 15/2/12; col. 790.]
Of course, there is an overwhelming interest in the continuation of a free press, but the press is not entirely free. There are legal limits, the most important of which is the law of defamation. Other provisions could be mentioned: for example, hacking is an offence. To some extent, the interesting story about hacking is why the police did not take action earlier and why cases were not brought. That is not the only area in which there was a failure to enforce the law, so there is an important existing legal framework around the activities of the press.
The question we are looking at is whether there should be fresh, tougher regulation of the press. On that matter, I have to declare that I am a sceptic about press regulation. I will add that to my other scepticisms, of which there are already quite a few, but I will not go into those. I will not spell out in detail why I am a sceptic about this but, if there is regulation, particularly tougher regulation, it will have a very significant chill factor on the operation of the press. That is going to be bad for it. It also does not sit easily with the nature of the press, which is intensely competitive. If people are competitive in a declining market, it is possibly part of the reason why they are striving for more and more sensation. They are trying, as it were, to preserve themselves in that situation.
The argument made by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, is deserving of attention, as is the excellent contribution made by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who spelt out in detail the huge problems there will be in providing any form of statutory underpinning to this regulatory system. I am doubtful as to whether regulation is the right way to go. I realise that I am very much in the minority in this House today on this matter but I felt it would be important to pick it up and to say that. I am glad to discover that it is not my phone that is making the noise I am hearing, by the by.
What would I do? I would like to see a review of the legislative framework that already exists. I have mentioned defamation; there is also the Bribery Act and the criminal offences there. The big question then would be: do we want a law of privacy? That is where this is heading, whether it is by regulation or by a law of privacy, which, having looked at it again, I am doubtful about.
I will finish by mentioning something that I had intended to say at the outset. I do not think that I have been at any time victimised by the print media—I emphasise “print”. However, I should mention that my elder daughter was, in that she was twice put on the front page of the Daily Mirror’s Northern Ireland edition. It concerned things that were embarrassing to her but had no reason to be there and nothing to do with my public life, yet because of my public position she was there. I see that a petition is going around in the United States to send Piers Morgan back here. He should know that if ever my wife gets within range of him, his life will be in danger.
My Lords, I want to comment on the relationship between the press and the internet with regard to the Leveson inquiry. I shall do so partly because this has not been discussed in much detail by previous speakers and partly because I would like to seal off a possible escape route from the implications of Leveson in relation to the famous “last chance saloon”. I am not entirely sure what that metaphor of the last chance saloon actually means; in the cowboy films that I remember, the hero went in and drank sarsaparilla, whatever that was. But sarsaparilla was thought to be a very innocent drink and the others insulted him, so he shot them. What this has to do with press freedom I am not sure. It is a more obscure metaphor than one might imagine.
We are living through a period of big transition in our society. One by one the institutions of our system are being peeled back, as if by a giant can-opener, and what is inside is not always all that delectable. This has happened, as everyone knows, in the banking system, in Parliament, in the police, in television and of course in the press. I do not think that one can see this as coincidental; it is clear that the internet and new information technology are playing a major role here—in other words, transparency and openness are being forced upon institutions in a much more thoroughgoing way than was ever true before.
The relationship between the press and the internet is obviously a complicated one. In some respects, it has clearly advanced the cause of investigative journalism. In all the areas that I have just mentioned, the press has played a fundamental part. That is an affirmation, if one were needed, of the indispensable role of a free and responsible press in a democratic society. It was the dogged persistence of one particular newspaper that served to uncover press behaviour that, as the Leveson report says,
“at times, can only be described as outrageous”.
That has been quoted many times.
Personally, I find Lord Justice Leveson’s work exemplary and his arguments for a self-regulatory system, driven by incentives and underpinned in law, irrefutable—I therefore disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, who spoke before me—and there have been some very powerful speeches today that have backed that up. However, what of the argument, which is made quite often these days, that the rise of the new media makes regulation of the press redundant? The newspapers, as several speakers have mentioned, are experiencing dwindling sales, in part because of the internet, which is a sort of chaotic free-for-all. Why regulate an industry that is doomed anyway? Many say that that will simply accelerate a decline from which we will lose.
Speaking as a social scientist who looks at these issues historically and in some detail, I have to say that that argument seems to be wholly wrong and actually against the best interests of the press itself. I offer three main reasons for this. First, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, said, it is commonly heard now that the printed press is on its last legs and might not survive even another 10 or 15 years, I would be very sceptical about that argument, based on what has happened to previous media. It used to be said, for example, that television would destroy cinema. That has not happened; now we simply have two forms existing alongside each other. It used to be said that television would destroy live football but actually the opposite has happened. I do not believe in such predictions, and I think that there is a future for the classical printed press alongside the internet. The question is what that future will be.
Secondly, it is clear the papers will exist in substantial part online, but it is fairly clear that there is little future for them if they are driven by a race to the bottom. Innumerable websites already specialise in outrageous opinions and endless tittle-tattle. There is no real possible competition for a newspaper in that context, so they will have to look for another model.
Thirdly, it seems that newspapers will survive and prosper online only if they generate trust and create revenue, either through attracting advertising, which has always been crucial to newspapers, or through charging their customers or both. If one examines it in detail, each strategy has far more chance of success if readers recognise that certain standards of reliability and authenticity are guaranteed.
We should note that this applies to strictly online newspapers. We might note the success of the Huffington Post, for example, which has been used widely across the world, but which is quite often translated into printed sources. Articles from that source appear in orthodox newspapers very often, but they do not appear there first. I conclude therefore that a regulatory system of the kind set out in the Leveson report is not only of benefit to the public but also to the press itself, and possibly indispensible to its secure future.
All the institutions I mentioned at the beginning—the banks, Parliament, the police, television—will emerge the stronger as a result of the impact of the new transparency. We see that in the case of Parliament clearly already. The same could very well be true of the press.
We owe it to the public to establish a system that is in their interests, but does not trample on their freedoms and rights, as so many other noble Lords have eloquently argued. Let us now get on with it. Let us forge a cross-party consensus. The public will not forgive us if we fail.
My Lords, we owe a huge debt to Lord Justice Leveson and his report. The press do, too, although it may not choose recognise it at the moment. In retrospect, in the years to come, I think that it will accept that it was very helpful to its industry.
After many months of listening to over 300 witnesses and taking over 300 written submissions, paragraph 8 of the executive summary of Lord Justice Leveson’s report says that,
“the British press—all of it—serves the country very well for the vast majority of the time. There are truly countless examples of great journalism, great investigations and great campaigns”.
Those great assets are something that all of us in this debate today are seeking to protect and enhance. I agree with that view, as I agree with most of the report. I recalled, when reading it, many journalists losing their lives to bring us a story, such as Maria Colvin last year. Indeed, News International, which has received quite a hammering in the debate today—and rightly so—has even over the past few months run an extremely good campaign on the sexual grooming of young women in the north-west and other parts of the country. Yet the Leveson inquiry was the culmination of the pent-up contempt of the British public for the appalling actions of journalists and photographers, but not all; of editors, but not all; and of the police, but not all. There have been 90 arrests, a damning statement in itself.
I declare an interest: in my previous career, I was proud to be the general secretary of the one of the unions involved in the national newspaper industry. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, who is not in his place, referred to proprietors. I believe that I have negotiated with every single one of those that he named. Indeed, I well remember having to go to Paris to negotiate with the late Lord Rothermere because he was a tax exile.
I was also a member of the Press Complaints Commission, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said, in his time there. That was a complaints commission; it was not a regulatory body. It had, and has today, something called the editors’ code. It was not just for the editors—the editors wrote it. It was that which the commission had to follow.
In the whole of this debate over the years, there is one group that I believe has snuck through quite comfortably without enough attention on it, and that is the proprietors of these newspapers. I am not saying that they signed the cheques in hacking; I do not believe that they did and most of them would not have known about it. However, I question them as the owners of these newspapers. If you go back a few years, Clive Goodman, a journalist, and Glen Mulcaire, a private investigator, were jailed for hacking into the Royal Household’s telephones. They went to jail and, when they came out of jail, News International paid them substantial amounts of money in compensation. What company would pay compensation to an employee who had gone to jail, having been found guilty in a court of law, unless there was something else there? That is no leading example.
The proprietors appoint the editors; the proprietors set the environment in which the editors work. None of this would have happened if the proprietors as a group had taken responsibility for the environment within their titles. Yet, when it came to paying the price as we saw the News of the World close—I was not a reader of it; many of us were not—who paid the price? Thousands of workers—innocent people from the production and journalism sides who knew nothing and were not involved in this disreputable activity—lost their jobs. Moreover, they did not go out the door with a multi-million pound settlement, as one of the people wholly responsible did.
The press have been claiming that if you are in favour of some statutory underpinning, then you are in favour of state control of the press. That is nonsense—a three-card trick—and I hope we do not fall for it. Lord Justice Leveson was perfectly clear in the report that not one of the more than 300 witnesses called for state control of the press; he said he never even contemplated it. I do not support statutory control of the press, but I have reluctantly come to the view that to have even a strengthened regulatory body without some kind of statutory underpinning, there is no guarantee that it will work next time either. The press have had no fewer than seven chances in seven reports over 70 years to get their act right. If they had got it right we would not be having this debate today and there would have been no need for Leveson.
I take the point about the Irish regulatory body, which I gather is working well but has not been put to the test in law yet. That is certainly something worth looking at.
The new regulations will not be complete unless journalists have a conscience clause. Lord Justice Leveson refers to this in his report. He also talks about a hotline for whistleblowers. Any decent company today has such a system in place and I hope the new regulatory body will take that on board. He talked about plurality and I totally agree: the trade unions have been asking for that to be addressed for over 20 years. Now perhaps it will be. One big omission in the report is the digital media. The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, was absolutely right that it is no good regulating for the printed press if we have no control of any kind of standards of the digital media. That is certainly lacking at the moment.
There has to be a cross-party outcome of this. Members of the public had the guts and courage to come forward and speak in public and knew they were being televised. If we do not get this right on this occasion, we will have badly let them down and missed a major chance.
My Lords, looking back to my youth, I realise how naive I was, because I used to believe what was written in the newspapers. Even when I started my first job as a very junior reporter for the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, as I knew that what I wrote was true, I assumed therefore that what others wrote was probably true, or largely true. I say “largely” because, having lived at Cliveden throughout the Profumo affair, I realised that a certain amount of exaggeration was the norm in much of the press.
It was not until I joined the world of politics and newspapers started writing about me that I realised that there was not a glimmer of truth in many of their stories, but I put that down to the price one pays for being involved in politics. After all, no one forces us to attend this House. However, in my time in newspapers, I learnt that most journalists seek the truth, but each newspaper has its target audience. Therefore, to keep the circulation up newspapers must pander to the views and often the prejudices of their readers. There is nothing wrong in that: newspapers have every right to have views whether we agree with them or not, and every right to tell people what they want to hear, as well as every right to tell them what they do not want to hear.
We must not forget that newspapers are a business. They are managed in order to make money for their shareholders, but that does not stop them having an important role in our democracy and our society. When newspapers champion themselves as guardians of free speech, often it is their freedom of speech that they are championing, not necessarily ours.
I deplore those who seek to restrict free speech because they do not agree, have different views or regard some views as unacceptable. Provided that it is not against the law of the land, freedom of speech is a core value in this country. Too many people have started using the words “freedom of speech”, followed by the word “but”. That is not freedom of speech.
Readers are not fools. If they do not like or do not agree with a newspaper, they do not buy it. When my family owned the Observer newspaper, my uncle, a distinguished and principled editor, came out against Suez. Although history shows that he was probably right, his readers took a different view. The circulation died. He lost thousands of readers, we were overtaken by the Sunday Times and we never recovered. When readers like what they read, they buy the newspaper. Of course, that is why the News of the World was so successful. Many of its readers were delighted by the salacious stories that they read.
I have three points to make on the commendable Leveson report. First, if the Government propose that the body for newspapers and magazines is to be voluntary, what happens if someone decides to leave, as did the Express newspapers from the Press Complaints Commission? Are we then to have a statutory body? If so, what will be its powers and its remit? We know that almost all the abuses set out in the Leveson report were already covered by the law, the Data Protection Act and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. If the editors, own code of practice had been adhered to, there probably would have been no need for an inquiry. It was the systematic abuse of their own guidelines that led to the inquiry.
It was also the failure of the police and prosecuting authorities, not the failure of the law, that allowed the abuses to survive for so long. I do not blame so much the journalist who bunged the police: I blame more the police for accepting the cash. However, I worry about the Bribery Act 2010, which seems to make it illegal to pay for information that could reveal corruption. I hope that the Government will look at that point.
My second point is whether a new body should be set up by royal charter. I believe that if that were the case, it would be a major mistake. Look at the BBC, which is under a royal charter. It is not really accountable to Parliament and it certainly is not accountable to licence fee payers. Recently, it often has treated Select Committees in another place almost with disdain. When a royal charter comes to Parliament, it is not amendable: we can only debate it. Any proposal that comes to Parliament needs to be scrutinised properly and be able to be amended.
We must have a new way to protect those who are most vulnerable when they are wrongly accused or smeared by the press. That is the challenge that your Lordships face. I agree that the ideal outcome is an independent regulatory body, established by the industry, which is able to secure the voluntary support and membership of the entire industry, and thus able to command the support of the public. Commanding the support of the public is probably most important.
Many of your Lordships will remember the days when, if they could not get their stories into their newspaper, journalists would march to hand their copy to Private Eye, where it duly would appear the following week. The internet carries that same ability, except that its circulation is infinite rather than in the thousands. Therefore, unless the internet service providers can be made accountable, any new scheme must fail. That is why any proposal and any new body must have real authority, and therefore probably must be backed by statute. The outcome would not be censorship, as has often been claimed by a group of self-important and self-righteous editors, who, as many of your Lordships have said, seem to lack any contrition and have never apologised. One wonders if they see the real crime as getting caught.
We need freedom of the press, with some small and important safeguards for those abused by the press. Editors need greater liberty to publish what is right and proper, not constrained by either the Government or their corporate masters.
My Lords, I believe that perspective is essential in our considerations of this matter. It is essential that we pay a warm tribute to many fine and courageous journalists and to excellent parts of the media, who provide invaluable service to society even when we at times get very upset by it. I am totally convinced by the courageous work of Lord Justice Leveson and think that we should fall behind him and quickly implement his emphasis on regulation, which must be independent of government and involve the media themselves. I also believe, as we have heard convincingly argued in this debate, that it must be underpinned by statutory authority. I am very glad that my noble friend Lady Liddell laid emphasis, rightly, on the importance of governance in the media.
I believe that the crisis in the media is a symptom of a deeper crisis in society as a whole. We are obsessed with quantitative rather than qualitative considerations. The increasing reality is more and more of a sad absence of ethical and value dimensions. There is now an emphasis in education from the youngest children to postgraduate studies onproducing efficient, operational people to feed the economic machine, less and less matched by an equal commitment to producing citizens who think, evaluate and challenge in the context of a search for truth and with the ability always to ask not simply what is happening but why it is happening or why it has happened. That is the key word—“why”.
Of course, we desperately need efficient management and highly professional competence, but for what? Where are we going? What is it that really matters? Historically, there has always been a tension in a pluralist free press between commercial success and fulfilling the high and demanding calling of being the essential life blood of an informed and imaginative democracy. This is, of course, complicated by arrogant love of power by some. Democracy cannot be better than the quality of the information on which it functions.
Whether we be of the left or right, the issue of ethics applies to us all. Adam Smith was first of all a teacher of ethics. He approached his economic theory in the context of being a highly ethical and somewhat dour, I suspect, Presbyterian. He took the ethics for granted. We now want a free market, and all the rest, but not the ethnics. When the Berlin Wall fell, Lord Soper made a debate-stopping intervention. He said that it was not a question of socialism having been tried and failed but of socialism having demanded an ethic of which humankind has so far proved itself incapable. So whether we are on the left or the right, that struggle to see the ethical dimensions has pride of place and must always be there.
The issue with which we are now dealing reflects the pressures in the machine that constantly push downmarket to ensure sales, circulation and advertising. Other absolute principles have to be present all the time, such as truth, responsibility and integrity. These should be basic to, and inherent within, the culture; it is no good for them to be present simply because they have been imposed by a regulatory body. They have to be internalised in all that is going on.
The media themselves have a key part to play in tackling all this. Education, not just the training of journalists, matters desperately. That is why the humanities such as history, philosophy and the creative arts are so critical in our educational system. It is sheer short-sighted foolishness to undermine their primacy in our educational system.
The repeated disturbing events which made Leveson necessary must raise questions about the prevailing or developing culture among too many journalists—though not all, by a long chalk—their sense of responsibility and how far any inadequacy is the inevitable outcome of the state of our society. To take Leveson seriously demands a fundamental look at ourselves, society as a whole and the quality of our educational system. If we are really to live up to the challenge of Leveson, we urgently need to promote a nationwide debate about the values of our society.
My Lords, I was surprised and, I have to say, disappointed by the reactions of both the Government and the press to Lord Justice Leveson’s report.
While I recognise, and have some sympathy with, what one can broadly call the “thin end of the wedge” arguments against the statutory element in the report, it has always seemed to me that those sorts of arguments—thin end of the wedge, slippery slope, and so on—are all too often an excuse for doing nothing. Without the statutory elements from Leveson, whatever action is taken by the Government or the press will, I fear, be seen as doing nothing, especially by the victims of press malpractice and the public at large. The press will be seen as “having got away with it again”. So I hope it is not too late for a change of heart, since I believe that there is something in Leveson as a whole to the advantage of everybody concerned.
For the press, Lord Justice Leveson has devised an ingenious and effective way for them to demonstrate their good intentions. The statutory element would absolutely not encroach on press freedom, the concept of which is specifically endorsed by the report, but the victims of press misbehaviour would realise that their sufferings have been recognised and acted upon. Furthermore, the press, Leveson has suggested, would actually be offered financial incentives to take part in the new system and to behave lawfully and reasonably—an incentive which is not offered to any other body I can think of.
For the public, the acceptance of the report would be seen as the long-awaited closing of the last chance saloon, with at last an independent self-regulating body as the monitor of press behaviour and standards, and a statutory underpinning which would bear witness that the press means what it says. Press and public might find themselves on common ground for the first time for years.
For the Government, the report has offered a chance to be seen to act swiftly and effectively and to demonstrate that the time and expense involved in the inquiry have not been wasted. That chance will be wasted if the statutory element is rejected. By accepting it, the Government would also be seen to be sympathetic to the victims of press malpractice rather than turning a more or less deaf ear.
As to the sanctions to be imposed on offending newspapers that sign up to this new self-regulating body, I suggest that they might include the suspension of publication in any form for a period of a day or days as the most draconian penalty. For those that do not sign up, any egregious offences would of course still be covered by the law of the land. In neither case would the statutory validating body take any part in the imposition of these penalties, other than as an interested spectator.
I am an avid newspaper reader. I recognise the difficult nature of the contracting market in which today’s press has to operate. I see that the printed press has an entitlement to freedom, but that freedom has been grossly abused by a minority of the profession over a period of years, despite persistent warnings from successive Governments. Leveson does not undermine the concept of freedom of speech but more of the same just will not wash. There are advantages for everyone concerned in accepting Leveson wholesale. Anything less will, I fear, be widely considered as a fudge.
My Lords, at last I have the chance to speak. However, there is little time and I hope that the Government genuinely want to take note of what we have to say. Having submitted written evidence to the Leveson inquiry, including a number of recommendations for change, I resolved to keep my powder dry, thinking that, as the immediate past chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, I would naturally be asked to give further evidence in person. In fact I had to chase the officials for the chance to speak at all and, when I did, I was cut short. As a lawyer, I was therefore reminded that you cannot tell the whole truth unless you are asked the right questions. I wondered, was I cut short on purpose?
So, how much should I reveal on this brief occasion? I have to remember also that it is not what you say; it is what people want to hear. Some might assume, having been misled by powerful representatives of the news industry, that I would advocate legislation. In short, my answer is no. While some in the press deserve to be heavily regulated, the public deserve a free press.
Nearly 15 years as an active Member of the House of Lords has shown me that you cannot begin to rely upon either politicians or indeed many in public life to root out wrong—there are too many vested interests and prestigious jobs at stake. Sometimes, to learn the truth, we need an open, partial, even offensive and investigative press that works within acceptable bounds of practice but is also free, at least in terms of the content it publishes, from any state interference.
I move on to the report itself. Given that the inquiry was called to put a stop to outrageous behaviour by some journalists and editors, much of it involving criminal behaviour, a stronger focus by Lord Justice Leveson on enforcement of the criminal law would have made sense. Also, a huge opportunity has been missed to rebuild public trust in the system by ignoring the obvious—the need to at least seriously consider how to future-proof compliance in an online, global world whereby you cannot and will not impose solutions. Here I entirely concur with the speeches of my noble friend Lord Inglewood and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich.
Instead, in the report there has been merely a feeble proposal for voluntary compliance within a traditional system. So I fear that whatever is agreed now will not last long and may not be trusted. Indeed, I remember that when we were taking the Communications Act through this House in 2003 there was no mention of the internet. At the same time, Mark Zuckerberg was in the States developing Facebook. We have to be careful that whatever we introduce will, at least to some degree, take account of the ongoing revolution in communications.
The suggestion that self-regulation should be underpinned by statute and handed over to Ofcom is simplistic. What if Ofcom decides that this new regulator has failed? More than that, I know—I think most of us know—that Ofcom is not entirely independent of the state, and a comparison with Ofcom’s oversight of broadcast regulation is instructive. A recent report by the Lords Communications Committee confirmed my view that the BBC complaints system is a complicated, ineffectual mess with no powers to prevent harm—unlike the current PCC, which does have effective powers to desist and prevent harmful content being published in the first place. While fines are wrought following an Ofcom ruling against a broadcaster, in the case of the BBC, the licence-fee payer coughs up, not Jonathan Ross et al, and certainly not BBC executives.
Incidentally, a royal charter for the press is not the panacea or even close. The BBC, with its charter and its rules and its board, and now trust—the latter introduced a few years ago to suit another occasion for political expediency—cosseted Jimmy Savile.
What about the rather key question: who is a journalist? Whom would the new system capture? You and I can now become one—an online journalist—overnight, but does that give us the all powerful privilege in a court of law, the protection of sources?
A number of recommendations by Leveson for reform, while presented as new, are not actually new at all. In fact, they reflect to a large extent the existing work of the PCC. The PCC itself is already dominated by people entirely independent of the industry. There is a speedy, bespoke system of handling of complaints and a rigorous process for prominence of apologies—just some of the 76 reforms introduced on my watch in 2010 following a root-and-branch independent review of governance and structures chaired by a retired senior civil servant—reforms completely ignored by Leveson.
Please also note: almost all the evidence presented to Leveson from victims relates—with the exception of Jefferies, which concerned contempt, and that is a criminal matter—to events that took place well before our reforms were introduced in 2010.
In my view there can be no doubt that the Leveson process has been healthy in the sense of bringing greater scrutiny to the press, and there is a chance—a chance—here to ensure a proper mandate for the new body which will go further than the PCC ever could. I welcome that wholeheartedly.
However, there are more shortcomings—or is it blind faith? References to “investigative powers” sound good; however, there remains a fanciful assumption that a self-regulating body can investigate criminal activity. Also, who is going to take on the additional responsibilities and pay for this? In 2011 the budget was £1.8 million—Ofcom, I think, is on £117 million right now—and there were 14 staff in total, including the switchboard. I am glad that Lord Justice Leveson recognised the frankly absurd financial constraints placed on the PCC by the industry. Funding is a major issue and the lack of resource has always cramped sustained efforts to toughen the system. Some might say that they had us where they wanted us. But will this really change? Will the industry really accept more invasive powers of a full independent body?
In truth, changing the culture and thereby changing behaviour—for that is what this is all about—is much more of a challenge than changing the law. While Lord Justice Leveson talks tough about wrongdoing, it is striking that he attributes no real blame at any stage. For an inquiry heralded as an independent and fearless examination of those in power, its report is gentle on the powerful: the police, editors and politicians.
That brings me to my key point. Before I left the PCC, I tried to persuade the industry of the critical need to develop consistent, industry-wide protocols applicable to journalists and editors for news gathering and the dissemination of personal information. Saying “tried” is of course a giveaway because it was up to the industry to make those rules, not the PCC.
Who are the industry and who are the press? The Government keep referring to the press as though it were one collegiate body, yet there remains a huge gulf, particularly between the editors and another between editors and journalists, and then there are those largely ignored by Lord Justice Leveson: the men in charge—the proprietors and publishers. Was that deliberate? Indeed, when I gave oral evidence, I asked Lord Justice Leveson why he was not calling the body that represents those in the industry who hold all the cards, the Newspaper Publishers Association. Why was its chairman not called to account for the industry’s behaviour? For some reason, Lord Justice Leveson and now the Government have each preferred to deal with a sub-committee of that board—PressBof—together with some editors.
Change requires leadership. It is the proprietors and publishers who should be called in for meetings by the Prime Minister, not the editors and fixers. Unless the real decision-makers regarding independence, sanctions, remit and funding collectively commit to tackling behaviour in newsrooms and assume accountability and proper governance at main board level within their organisations, nothing will actually change. A huge opportunity will be lost and the Leveson inquiry will have been a total waste of time and a flagrant waste of taxpayers’ money. Can my noble friend the Minister confirm this evening that the Government will tackle those ultimately responsible?
If the public are to continue to enjoy a free press, they must be given good reason to trust what they read. So far, the jury is out.
I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness who has just spoken. Her defence of the PCC, about which she spoke at some length, was not wholly convincing, as the House has already mentioned. I regret very much that some news organs fall very short of being the “acceptable press”, to which she referred. It was a rather biased account.
In recent years, too many of the public have been exposed to the unwarranted intrusion and calumnies of the press and, unless effective action is taken, others will be, too. Much of the press, although not all, is controlled by press barons who are primarily concerned with advancing their own political and economic objectives, and, in the main, in my view, are largely unconcerned about potential victims who have too easily become pawns in attempts to increase circulation. The majority of the national papers are not to be trusted, I would contend.
Fortunately, many of the relevant issues have been put under Lord Justice Leveson’s microscope. There may well be a few matters in this comprehensive report from which one might legitimately dissent but that does not mean that the core solutions advocated by Leveson should not be implemented, as the Prime Minister assured us they would be, unless, to quote his words following the inquiry, “they are bonkers”. Bonkers Leveson is certainly not, and Labour’s Bill and that of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, take the line that the regulator has to be independent and that an independent body should oversee the regulator to secure that objective.
Although there are cogent arguments in favour of enshrining in statute a code of conduct, there are those who contend that it would jeopardise press freedom. A compromise between these two positions would be to ensure the impartiality of the independent regulatory body by requiring that it should be presided over by members of the senior judiciary. The exact formula for this would have to be worked out. Statutory intervention should and would be limited in this instance to the setting up of the regulatory body and would not extend to any prescription for press freedom in general.
Labour’s Bill in some respects falls short of those I would favour, but it is a positive advance that represents genuine momentum in implementing the principal recommendations of the report. Regulation of the press is not prescribed in Labour’s Bill, but the regulator will be both independent and—I hope—effective. We should not end up with what the majority of the press would prefer: superficial change during a honeymoon period, with no substantial transformation in reality. If the press considers itself a profession, laws—simple ones, I hope—to protect the public are absolutely essential. This is common to most professions. Why should the press be different?
I have great respect for the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who is not in his place. His intention is to comply with the concept of a new regulatory process. However, I fear that under his proposals, without some statutory underpinning, albeit of a limited nature, the structure of the regulatory body may prove to be not as strong or as independent as he claims.
I do not subscribe to the notion that the press should become the final arbiter, exercising real power; that the chair of the board could be summarily dismissed by the press, no doubt acting at the behest of the press barons; that a mere notice in writing to that effect would suffice; and that sanctions, if any, would be decided by the same press barons. That is totally inadequate. Some solution! Some independence! No wonder the press and media would support that.
Of course there are weaknesses in the route I outlined, but it is better than the plan devised by the newspapers or that offered by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—for whom, as I said, I have great respect. Some government supporters, particularly those in another place, would in the final analysis prefer to kick the whole thing into touch.
I support the proposal put before the House by the Opposition. It would provide a fair wind to the aims that so many of us wish to see realised. Having said that, I would warmly welcome cross-party talks, provided that those participating were positive and prepared to make clear decisions. However, royal charters are essentially the wrong signpost to follow. My view is that that should not happen.
My Lords, the debate has been framed as a question between those who prefer some kind of limited statutory regulation and those who wish to resist that. However, I contend that, essentially, the debate is not about the relationship between politicians and the press and the police and the press but about the relationship and the level of trust that exists between the press and the public in whose interests it claims to act. The basis of that relationship has come under strain because of abuses of power by some journalists, resulting in a breach of trust and a sense that inadequate balance of power has been exposed in seeking redress.
It used to be the case that the press would “shine a light”, but all too often it is so strong that it now scorches the lives and the truths upon which it focuses its attention. It used to illuminate but often, as it sensationalises and joins in a voyeuristic celebrity obsession, it now trivialises the news and obscures the truth from view.
The press should not separate that reality from its falling circulation levels as a potential cause and effect. It is a part of the reason why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set up the Leveson inquiry. On 8 July 2011, he said:
“The Press Complaints Commission has failed. In this case, the hacking case, frankly it was pretty much absent. Therefore we have to conclude that it’s ineffective and lacking rigour. There is a strong case for saying that it is institutionally conflicted because competing newspapers judge each other. As a result it lacks public confidence. I believe we need a new system entirely”.
I would argue that if the Rubicon has been crossed, it was not crossed with a potential Bill but with that statement of intent.
And so Lord Justice Leveson began his work. Not on his own: he conducted his work with six independent assessors, whose contributions should be acknowledged, in Sir David Bell, the former chairman of the Financial Times; Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty; the noble Lord, Lord Currie, a former Ofcom director; Elinor Goodman, former political editor of Channel 4; George Jones, the former political editor of the Daily Telegraph; and Sir Paul Scott-Lee, a former chief constable with the West Midlands Police. The sum of their efforts together was the report we are now considering.
It was a courageous decision by the Prime Minister to set up the inquiry but it enjoyed overwhelming public support at the time. It still merits overwhelming public support if we are to judge by the opinion polls. The public had a sense that there was something fundamentally wrong with the system at the heart of journalism and that something needed to change. If they felt that at the beginning of the inquiry, then as the details emerged of the treatment of Sally Dowler, Kate and Gerry McCann, Margaret Watson and Chris Jefferies, that position was surely strengthened as we were horrified by the evidence it revealed.
What makes the system far worse, and the need for action far more urgent, is that we have never had an inquiry at this level—there have been six or seven—with the strength of the internet in play, an issue to which other noble Lords have referred. It used to be said that newspapers were tomorrow’s fish and chip papers but, because of the internet, they are today’s reheated fish and chips. On the internet, lies can be circulated around cyberspace and constantly move in advance of any correction. There was evidence from Gerry McCann on this when he spoke about his fear, as a father, of the time when his children will be old enough to start searching the internet engines and come across articles which allege that their mother and father were complicit in their sister’s murder.
Of course we cannot control what is on the internet, but if we want to live in a civilised society, it behoves us to do all we can to regulate the veracity of what goes on the internet in the first place. We are reminded that democracy is not just an event, but a process, and that distils down to a duty to keep a check on power. We must make sure that the regulatory system keeps pace with the shifting contours of power in our society. It used to be said that it was the role of journalists to speak truth to power. Through the Leveson inquiry we have heard from victims of the press, and it is their courage in re-entering the public square and sharing their accounts which has turned and spoken truth to the power of the press. We must remember that the object of all our freedoms is not the preservation of a free press, but the protection of a free people.
My Lords, I welcome this debate and I especially welcome the Leveson report and analysis, and the fact that he adopted many of the recommendations I made in my evidence to him. But there have been voices that disagree with his approach, basically on the argument about whether there should be a statutory underpinning. That is what is at the heart of the argument now—not only now, but, as Leveson pointed out, in a number of the seven other inquiries that have taken place over the past 70 years. It is clear that in avoiding the recommendations, the industry has used the same old trick: you delay it in discussion until you get near to an election and so avoid doing anything about it.
I have no problem with the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, saying that they should be talking to the proprietors. The trouble is that not only are they talking to them, they dine with them and they wine with them. That is where the real influence lies—not only at the level of the editors, but at the level of the proprietors. We need to look at the evidence in any debate about a statutory framework. They say, and it has been said today, that statutory underpinning would bring about state control. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, fears that if we go along this road, it will lead to more of that. I have to say to the noble Lord: think about what they are doing now and then wait for 10 years. They have not changed their habits; they have not changed the culture. It is the same creatures who are exercising their culture in a way that I believe acts against the ordinary individual, so it is nonsense to argue that.
There is also the old time trick: let us keep on talking and eventually we will talk it out. We will get near the election, when no Prime Minister of whatever political party will want to say, “I’ll have you on”, because he will want them on his side for the election, so nothing happens. It is no coincidence that we have now had the eighth inquiry.
We have heard speeches today from the noble Lords, Lord Hunt, Lord Stevens and Lord Wakeham. The noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Wakeham, have direct experience as chairs of the PCC. I have to say that the evidence is against them. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, told us before about how confident he was that he would get his plan through, but it did not happen with the Black plan. It got rejected in Leveson and nobody except the proprietors supported it. I am glad to hear him talking about confidence in this one because it is to be based on civil law, but I will wait and see.
The noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, knows this because I have discussed it with him on a number of occasions. When he was the chair, he negotiated with the Labour Government in 1997 when we were changing our legislation to comply with the European Convention on Human Rights. He was able to limit the statute so that the industry did not get an independent PCC, as was required under that legislation. I think he referred to Section 12. He also limited the damages payable under human rights and privacy considerations, which he was able to get into the legislation. It is not as if they are against a statutory framework; they rather like a statutory framework as long as it is working for them. The argument about a statutory framework is not a principled one. I go even further than that. These things were happening after the “last chance saloon” warning that has been referred to. They went on a pub crawl after that, because all the criminal acts that you can think of under our legislation were committed at the highest level, despite the role-playing by the press and the media in the name of press freedom. That is what every one of us has been condemning today.
You might say that if they are against a statutory framework, why are we in this House considering legislation such as the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act and the Defamation Bill, which is before us at the moment? Those two pieces of legislation are designed to reduce damages claimed against the press in cases where they have been found guilty and to reduce the possibility of people securing no-win, no-fee agreements. That has been limited by that legislation, at the request of the media, using our power of statutory enforcement to their advantage. They are not against it in principle, they are just against it for others when it might strengthen their position against them.
In recognising that, as I said before to the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, we should look at what they are doing now in the light of the Leveson report. We have a situation where the editor of the Times has been dismissed—or perhaps it was settled and it went his way. James Harding was a more liberal voice, but he did not last very long when the phone call came in from New York, despite all the protection for the Times. The Sun and the Telegraph were recently involved in the plebs conspiracy, as it is now called, according to the evidence yesterday. What happened there? The Sun and the Telegraph got an exclusive on the information in the memo and then published it. I do not suppose they paid for it—they would not do such terrible things, would they?—but they got it and published it. What did they do with it? They used it as evidence against Leveson’s report, saying that whistleblowing is a justification. After two days, when it clearly looked to be a conspiracy, we had the inquiry. They had forgotten about that.
The more recent case, which does involve me, is that of the chief superintendent who was found yesterday to have been paid by the News of the World. When they ring up to say, “Will you give me a few bob because I’ll tell you Prescott’s pressuring us for an inquiry”, that is as serious as the actual payment. We in our job have to do what we think is right; and, in my case, I was pressing for a further inquiry because the conclusions of the first one were not true. I am right to do that as a parliamentarian, yet they can ring up a paper like the News of the World. She wanted to use the public interest defence but it was financial, as the courts found yesterday.
I did not want to go into the privacy issue with Prince Harry, but some photos were taken in private and all the industry agreed not to print them. The Sun must have got another call from New York, as the next day it decided to print them and break the unanimous agreement that privacy here had to be respected. All this is going on now, in the era of Leveson. They have not changed. It is all about culture, they say. I agree that it is about culture but how do you get that to change? You cannot just chat to the editor, you have to do an awful lot more than that.
However, there are things that we can do. For example, there is the information about Ireland that we were given by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. It was very interesting to hear the differences, as the situations are not exactly the same. That is true, but if you read Leveson, there is a full statement about it. What is important is that they made changes to the legislation, which they were able to impose. Why were they able to get the British press to sign up in Ireland? Everybody asks that question, but we know why they signed up for it—because they have a system that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, has pointed out, is better. It is voluntary, but underpinned by statutory framework, because the man who I saw 10 years ago, the Minister of Justice, holds the power to determine what is an independent organisation. That is political accountability.
When I hear all this talk about how it takes years, I ask: why we do not amend the Defamation Bill that is before this House now, like the Irish did, and put some of the content in that? We can do that almost immediately—the Bill is coming before us and we can get on with it. In Ireland, as Leveson pointed out, they reserved the right to be able to say, “If you do not create the proper independent, voluntary body which we all say we want, we will implement this statutory one”. That is put in a Bill; it is called a sunset clause.
If the House is serious about this, it should think about a sunset clause. If they do not do what is expected and carry on with delaying tactics, we have the power to say not that we are going for legislation but to implement it in a sunset clause. That is what we can do; that is what we should do; it is built on the Irish example.
My Lords, almost everything that there is to say has already been said, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, so I will just concentrate on two points. First, there is the ingenuity of Leveson, which recognises that voluntary self-regulation via the almost toothless Press Complaints Commission has run its course. Therefore, any successor system of self-regulation needs to give confidence that it will not be toothless—hence the need for legislation to guarantee the teeth. I think that is the main thrust.
The truly ingenious feature of Leveson is his proposal to secure publishers’ participation in a toughened system of self-regulation by means of incentives rather than compulsion. These incentives are cost-shifting, exemplary damages and the opportunity for a newspaper to consult the new regulatory body when faced with a difficult decision as to whether or not to publish. All these incentives hang together; it is a very coherent structure. But that structure will not work without an arbitration scheme or the necessary statutory measures to allow exemplary damages and double cost-shifting, always at the court’s discretion.
That is the Leveson alternative to giving the victim of a damaging story the legal right of prior notification. In his evidence to Leveson, Max Mosley said:
“Once information is made public, it can never ever be made private again. Therefore the only effective remedy is to stop it becoming public”.
The Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions found that there was,
“widespread support for prior notification becoming a requirement for editors intending to run a story which compromises an individual’s private life”,
and that this should be part of the code of practice for the new regulatory body.
Leveson does not concede the right of prior notification, which is what this group of witnesses was asking for, but he suggests a way in which it will benefit proprietors to seek advice from the regulator before publishing a potentially damaging story, with an arbitration system that, in the event of publication, will make reference to the advice that has been given. A Desmond newspaper could, if it wished, remain entirely outside the system, but if it broke the law—on defamation, privacy or harassment—it would risk exemplary damages. It would also be liable to pay the costs of both sides in a court case, whether it won or lost. In a nutshell, it would be much more expensive for a newspaper to stay outside the system, even though it would be allowed to do so.
Leveson’s aim is admirable but limited. It is an attempt to apply a legal dressing to a cultural wound. I do not accept that every country gets the press it deserves—we deserve a better press, I think—but a number of broader factors explain the press that we have got. The first is the politicians. The point has been made, but I think it needs reinforcement. I speak as an historian. The politicians have built up a partly malign press for their own political purposes. That has been the main factor in the rise of Rupert Murdoch and News International. As the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, pointed out, it was Margaret Thatcher who allowed the Murdoch build-up, because she knew that his titles would support her. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, that Murdoch was equally ardently pursued by Tony Blair for exactly the same reason.
In his memoirs, which I quote chapter and verse, Blair admits that he made a “Faustian pact” with Murdoch—could anything be more transparent than that?—but he does not reveal what Faust’s obligations were in this pact. Later he complained that the press was a “feral beast”. Did he not understand that if you dine with the devil you should use a very long spoon? Perhaps he did not care.
That is one source of the malaise that we have all been complaining about. The point there is that a proper enforcement of anti-monopoly legislation would have prevented the extensive Murdoch takeover. That is why I believe that no one company or individual should be allowed to own more than 20% of newspaper titles.
But that is not the only thing. We now live in a culture that is much more interested in the personalities of our leaders than in policies, possibly because the public have a well founded suspicion that a great deal of political debate is phoney. The demand to expose corruption in dark places has turned into an insatiable desire to know more and more about the private lives and griefs of public figures—and even non-public figures. We all enjoy a bit of prying, but we are the first civilisation to have turned enjoyment of prying into a right to know—that is, to raise it to the status of a political principle. That is the real ethical Rubicon that we have crossed. There is no easy solution to it. I do not think that there is any purely legal remedy for such ethical confusions. Leveson has done everything that he can to protect privacy, so his report deserves our strong support. We should be especially vigilant to ensure that the recommendations are carried out in their full integrity because, as I have said, they all hang together.
My Lords, we owe Lord Justice Leveson a very great debt. His is not merely a sophisticated, integrated and well argued report, but it has been conducted in the most difficult circumstances, in which he was not able to comment on a great deal of the relevant evidence because of the number of cases that are or will be sub judice. In effect, he had to do his prospective task before his retrospective task. It is a matter of consummate skill that he succeeded in that.
At the end of that, it is remarkable that we have the degree of agreement that we already find. Listening to the debate today, we can see that there is an enormous level of agreement about the “what” and a great deal less about the “how”. I will talk about a small part of the “what”, as I think it, too, deserves some attention. I first declare a few interests. I have spent my life writing on political philosophy, in the last decade on media freedoms and other human rights, and I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I am also among those who think that statutory backing for a recognition body will be needed, but I will not argue the case for that now in order to concentrate on the question of “what”.
Which standards matter? Let me take the most obvious one, and the one central to the former Press Complaints Commission code: accuracy in reporting matters. We can see that that matters for all of us as citizens. We often hear suggestions that that is all very nice but journalists have to work very fast—unlike the rest of us—so a certain amount of inaccuracy is inevitable and excusable. If the demand were that journalists achieve total accuracy, that might be a partial excuse, but of course the demand is to attempt accuracy and to take appropriate precautions and remedies when accuracy is not achieved. If we assume that the demand is to achieve total accuracy then, because the standard is too high, it is likely to be treated with contempt. I suggest that that has happened. The very demand for accuracy central to the PCC code has been seen as marginal—an aspiration, but practical people can disregard it. I think that they cannot in a democracy.
If the aim is to attempt accuracy, feasible requirements can be stated with some clarity and do not limit media freedom of expression. Attempting accuracy is basically a matter of respecting readers, listeners and viewers by giving them some means to check media claims. Of course, not every reader of a story will have an interest in checking or the time to do so. But at present all too often they have no option but to accept or reject what is said and perhaps then demonstrate that they are not gullible by adopting a certain blanket cynicism about those claims. Better remedies are available that work by requiring better media process, which makes media claims assessable by others, and not by regulating content. That is what journalism in a democracy should aim for, and it would not be that hard.
Here are some examples. Where money has been paid to obtain content, this should be stated. You do not necessarily have to state who paid, but state that it is paid-for content. If the agents of celebs have certain content placed in a newspaper for money, that is surely relevant to assessing the story. Where content has been donated, this should be stated. Where a report on a company is just a lightly done-over press release, do not readers deserve to know? Where money has been received, it should also be stated. Consumer journalism is rife with examples in which it is in effect advertising, but that is not declared. I was struck by the points of comparison with advertising standards made by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. That seems quite pertinent to me: anything that is paid-for content should be recognisable as such, and that goes for financial and consumer journalism, with its lovely holidays and so on.
Where journalists, editors and programme makers have relevant interests, they should declare them. Where they have conflicts of interest, they should make them plain and appropriate measures should be taken. Where there is no reason to hide sources, they should be made public, as good journalists have always done. Where inaccurate content is published, its correction should be swift and equally visible, with apologies if those are called for. Where there is a reason to hide some sources, the evidence for a public interest defence should be assembled and, if necessary, used. Those are not impossible requirements; they are quite manageable.
I have another point which is also quite relevant. Some have said that what has happened is that new technologies have made it harder for the media to reach certain standards, or perhaps easier to violate them. Perhaps that contributed to the descent of some journalism into disgraceful habits. However, new technologies can also be part of the remedies. The information for making media content assessable by improving media process can be provided online, cheaply and easily. I believe that it would greatly improve the standards of journalism if these simple changes in process were secured.
In my last minute, I finish with a brief comment on media plurality. Concentration of media power is not in the interest of citizens; it is only in the interests of those who concentrate it. We should be clear that there are no arguments from rights of freedom of expression to suggest that we should be indifferent about the concentration of power, and that the break-up of media monopolies, or oligopolies, protects rather than damages freedom of expression. Consideration of concentration of power is quite separate from other aspects of media regulation.
One aspect of media plurality is peculiarly difficult at present in this country. Many current proprietors of national newspapers are not citizens of this country; some are citizens and not taxpayers. They do not share our future or our fate, which is really quite problematic. In replying to this debate, I wonder whether the Minister would be willing to say something about the steps that Her Majesty’s Government would take in the event that the Murdoch enterprises decided on a fire sale of their UK newspaper assets and the new owners were, say, either Chinese or Qatari citizens. Is there anything that the Government think they would be able to do? We already have many overseas, non-taxpaying owners. Would it be acceptable that the national press is entirely overseas based and owned?
My Lords, many adjectives have preceded the Leveson inquiry, which we are debating today. We have heard that,
“the whole country has been shocked by the revelations of the phone hacking scandal”.
We have heard it described as,
“an episode that is … disgraceful”,
and that there has been,
“the failure of our political system over many, many years to tackle a problem that has been getting worse”.
We have heard descriptions of the victims:
“Relatives of those who died at the hands of terrorism, war heroes and murder victims—people who have already suffered in a way that we can barely imagine—have been made to suffer all over again”.
Those were the words of our Prime Minister, David Cameron, when he made a Statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday 13 July 2011 about the phone-hacking scandal and the upcoming inquiry. Naturally, the entire nation found empathy with the Prime Minister’s sentiment. He spoke for all of us.
Over the following months, as the inquiry progressed, millions of us watched in disbelief as individuals described their harrowing experiences with journalists. We all know who the victims are and we all know what they experienced, as we have been reminded today by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins. We saw the misery in their faces, and they surely hoped that something positive would come from them telling their stories to millions through the inquiry.
However, we did not hear from the silent victims of the press, those without power or a voice—benefit claimants, single parents, immigrants, people with disabilities, rape victims, the unemployed, Gypsies and black and Asian people. They have been abused, insulted and ridiculed by the media, sometimes even encouraged by the debate that politicians are engaged in. One example is the current debate about welfare reform. If you have your curtains drawn at 8 am, you are a benefit scrounger living off welfare. You could not possibly be a night worker who has just completed a 10-hour shift driving a bus, cleaning the streets or emptying our dustbins—oh no.
Now, though, we have an inquiry and a promise from the Prime Minister, made on the “Andrew Marr Show” in October, that Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals would likely be adopted unless they were too “heavy-handed” or “bonkers”. In the light of his response today, I will leave the House to choose between bonkers or heavy-handed. I think neither.
In his report, Lord Justice Leveson said that newspapers in Britain have been guilty of years of malpractice that has,
“wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people”,
and ultimately must be regulated to prevent further wrongdoing. In a Statement to the House of Commons in November last year, the Prime Minister reminded us why the inquiry had been necessary. He said:
“We should remember how the parents of Milly Dowler, at their most vulnerable moment, had their daughter’s phone hacked and were followed and photographed, how Christopher Jefferies’ reputation was destroyed by false accusations, how the mother of Madeleine McCann … had her private diary printed without her permission and how she and her husband were falsely accused of keeping their daughter’s body in their freezer”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/12; col. 446.]
Lest we forget, all these were stories—and “stories” is the appropriate word—that the media thought that they had the freedom to publish, and which they thought it was essential for the British public to know. But somewhere on the road to Wapping, with the sun behind him, the Prime Minister had a conversion and announced that while changes were urgently needed, he would reject the judge’s recommendation for a statutory body to oversee the new independent press regulator. The Prime Minister went on to say:
“We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/11/2012; col. 449.]
Have we asked the victims what they think? At the Leveson inquiry, JK Rowling described her experience at the hands of the press as,
“under siege or like a hostage”,
in her own home. She was not the only victim wondering why the Prime Minister has spent public money setting up an inquiry, and why so many people have been asked to relive extremely painful episodes in the context of an inquiry watched by millions, if its recommendations were merely to be ignored. Clearly, JK Rowling and other victims who gave evidence to the inquiry had a right to feel disappointed, duped or even angry. And for what?
We are told by most parts of the media that their intrusion into our private lives and their taunts to minority groups are about freedom of the press. But where is the freedom for us, our friends and family, to live our lives without being hounded by the press? For more than 60 years, the press had insisted that it can regulate itself, but history tells us that, on every occasion that a self-regulatory body was established by the press, it has been told that this was its last chance. Clearly, some sections of the press have failed consistently to police themselves.
The challenge for us is simple. We cannot allow this process to be repeated again and again. Why? Because we want, and the British people deserve, a press of which and about which they can be proud: one which has the freedom to inform, but not the freedom to destroy.
Freedom of the press has never been, and should never be, allowed to become the power of rich, powerful organisations to trash the lives of individuals and, as my noble friend Lord Morris has said, minority groups. In fact, in its origins, the press did exactly the opposite. I will make a few points about the report itself and then, if I have time, I will talk a little on the relationships between politicians and the press, an issue on which we need to spend much more time.
First, let us put to bed another issue. The press deviously and dishonestly, during the course of the inquiry and immediately after the report, tried to lead people to believe that Leveson was introducing a statutory system. As has been said, it is not. Leveson calls for an organisation that would verify the strength, independence and fairness of the body set up by the press itself. That is what we are all talking about here. In this context, I remind noble Lords of the importance of the code. In my long years of dealing with the relationship with the press, the code has been crucial. It was drawn up by and, in my view, for the editors. Much of it, if you read it in a simple way, seemed good until you looked at the small print; we all look at the small print. Here, you have quite a good description of the “public interest”, and then there is an exception:
“There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself”.
That is the get-out clause. The other one, of course, is:
“The PCC will consider the extent to which material is already in the public domain, or will become so”.
So all you had to do was to get one of your friends or colleagues to put something on the internet, zap it around a bit, and the press would start reporting the fact that it was on the internet and, finally, report the thing itself. Frankly, that is why you need something to oversee a body: to say, “That is not fair. It is not strong”. That is the case for the body that Leveson is proposing.
Also in that context, Leveson was not asked to look at the internet. Nor is it important, because the difference is in the nature of a large, corporate organisation trashing someone and individuals putting comments on the internet. There is a problem emerging about internet coverage of people’s private lives, but it would not get in the way of what we are discussing today.
In respect of those who do not sign up for the new system, I would suggest not only that court proceedings would be more heavily against those newspapers, but we should also look at the option of tax breaks of various types, precisely because the press is a declining industry. While I agree with other comments that have been made about this, it will not die out: it will change. Giving them tax breaks would not be a bad idea in recognising that they have signed up to a quality code.
I do not want the body concerned to be Ofcom; I think that would be the least good option. Neither do I think there should be a royal charter. I do not have time to go into it in detail, but my personal preference is still very much for an independent body. There is an issue about how we set that up which requires quite a bit of thought and discussion, but it is not beyond our ability to do it. As my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, there are already models available showing how to set up independent bodies, both in the public and private sectors and in the joint public-private sector. We have to examine how we do that and then set it up, but it is not impossible to do it.
I turn to the history of the relationship between politicians and the press because when I introduced my Bill on freedom and responsibility of the press in 1991, I conducted hearings in the same way as Leveson. The response was interesting: I was attacked from all sides. I have no problem with that: I am a politician and am not exactly unused to it. The interesting thing to me, however, was the number of people who said to me that I was putting myself at risk. My own partner actually said to me at the time, “I am more worried about you taking the press on than I was when you were doing Northern Ireland from the Front Bench”. I thought, “By God, I didn’t think it was that bad”. That, however, was the view.
When I wrote the book on this issue together with Professor O’Malley, it was described as an attempt to gag the press. There was a problem in my Bill—I acknowledge that—and it was that I had not cracked the issue of how to set up the independent body. However, Peter Preston said in a recent article that Leveson had picked up my Bill and applied it. I do not think that is quite right, but that was Preston’s view. My own view is that, if the press had taken on board what we were talking about 20 years ago, we would not be where we are now. I say this to the previous chairs of the PPC and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt: I know you have tried individually, but I have been saying for many years—and I was not alone in saying it—that you presided over a weak and ineffectual body that had major failings within it. The case for proceeding with it was very poor indeed; there was actually a case for simply resigning from it and saying, “It is not working”. It would have helped if we had had that.
I had an alarm, which grew in the 1970s and 1980s, about the nature of the relationship between the press and politicians. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, might want to think about this. When Tony Blair decided to go to see Murdoch, I approved of that, though the late Ian Mikardo MP said to a group of us together, “If you are going to sup with the devil, sup with a long spoon”. My view was that we had to do it because the press were increasingly seeing themselves as holding not just the Government to account, but politicians as well. It devalued Parliament, so parliamentarians stopped having their speeches and comments reported. One of the first things I did in the 1970s was to recognise that I was not going to get speeches in the press anymore; I had to form relationships with members of the media in order to get stories in. Tony Blair and other party leaders had to make an approach to those leaders of the press. My noble friend Lady Liddell is absolutely right: this was a massive failure of management within the media industry, and particularly in the press. We should bear in mind that the News of the World was, until relatively recently, a good newspaper that did good journalism. It went off the rails, and the newspaper was closed down, but Rupert Murdoch and James Murdoch stayed in post. What sort of responsibility is that?
I ask the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, please to recognise his own responsibility in this. There were stories, and I used stories, in the press about the failure of media moguls, such as Rupert Murdoch, who were refusing to take responsibility for the bullying, sexual harassment and racism that were going on at the Sun. His paper, the Daily Express, was one of those which refused to publish it. The only newspapers that used it were the Guardian, the Independent and the BBC. Then the story was killed. That was happening over and over again.
If the press had been good at holding the owners, editors and some journalists to account, not only would they not be in the mess that they are in today, at least we would not be able to say that it is grossly hypocritical for them to turn around and say, “Oh, it is the politicians or these other people in the public eye—footballers, actors and so on”. No, it is not: it is the nature of the way in which the press has been operating with unaccountable power for a long time. I believe that Leveson is right. Broadly, we should go down that road and, fairly soon, we should discuss in rather more detail the relationship between politicians and the press.
My Lords, 2012 surely was an annus horribilis for standards in public life in this country. In the wake of the financial crisis, many of our institutional pillars, which are respected across the world, saw their probity brought into question with scandal after scandal. They included the press, the police, the BBC and politicians. It is sad to see the deterioration of values that historically set the standards to which others aspired. The UK’s global reputation is suffering as a consequence. I pay tribute to Lord Justice Leveson on his excellent report, which I hope will be a turning point for the restoration of some of these long-cherished values.
Freedom of the press is vital in maintaining democracy. Fortunately, Britain has some of the best journalists in the world who have set the benchmarks for ethical reporting. In India, we admired many British journalists, such as James Cameron and Mark Tully. Just last month, Indian journalists presented their lifetime achievement award posthumously to Sir Charles Wheeler.
However, ordinary citizens who find themselves caught in the media spotlight, often at a time of extreme crisis or loss, should reasonably expect that their personal information is not illegally accessed and published. The victims of the press have no voice and no platform. We must congratulate the Hacked Off campaigners who have taken a brave stand against an industry, some of whose members seem to regard themselves as being above the law.
When Lord Justice Leveson was preparing his report, even he could not have foreseen that a supposed hoax call by two Australian radio presenters on 4 December would end in such tragedy. Jacintha Saldhanha came to the UK with her husband and children as a young, skilled nurse. She worked hard and contributed to the welfare of people in this country. Yet she became an unwitting victim of the media. It appears that public humiliation by the press may have driven her to take her own life. I offer my sincere condolences to her bereaved family. I have great sympathy for the Royal Family and the Duchess of Cambridge who were also victims in this tragedy.
This case surely must represent the pinnacle of the abuse of power by the media over the individual. With power goes responsibility. Yet again the media have failed fully to accept that responsibility. It is now time for that power to be curbed and I urge the Government to endorse fully the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson's report, especially when it was commissioned with all-party support.
Globally, the newspaper industry is losing its market share to social media. As circulation numbers fall, advertising revenues fall. Increased pressure to retain readership causes even more sensational reporting and a further decline in ethical standards. We have already seen in the banking sector how the pressure to produce extra profits and bonuses led to a collapse in business standards and the resulting financial crisis from which we all suffer and are likely to suffer for a long time. It is sad to see that the newspaper industry is going the same way.
There is no point in discussing self-regulation, because we know it has failed in banking, in the media, and in a lot of other services. At the moment, it is difficult to find an area where it has succeeded. Another revelation in the Leveson report is the extent of corruption involving the media, especially the cosy relationship between some of the media establishment and our politicians. The level of corruption in Britain is a topic now being openly discussed here and abroad. I quote recent comments by the executive director of Transparency International, one of the UK's leading anti-corruption organisations, on the publication of its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index in December, where the UK ranks 17th in the world. It said:
“Despite the passing of the Bribery Act, and measures to improve transparency in government, the perception of experts is that the UK continues to be more vulnerable to corruption than the political establishment is willing to admit … The steady stream of political scandals has exposed a worrying complacency at the heart of UK politics. Until the Government acts with urgency to put a cap on party funding and introduce tougher regulation of lobbying and the revolving door, the UK will not be able to rise higher in global anti-corruption league tables”.
Corruption extends well beyond simple monetary gain to the abuse of power. Leveson has revealed that our politicians and Governments have had what is at best an unhealthily close relationship with the press over many years and, at worst, something more sinister. Our leaders must recognise that others look to them as an example. Their behaviour must be, and must be seen to be, unimpeachable at all times. They set the standard for the nation to follow. There can be no deals, at any level, between the media and our politicians.
I have seen how corruption in certain countries has destroyed the fabric of society for ordinary people and lowered the prestige of those countries internationally. This House has often discussed the question of corruption in other countries; perhaps the time has come to recognise that it is also happening here and something needs to be done, and speedily.
My Lords, at this late stage in such a long debate, having heard the main issues so well analysed, I shall base my contribution on my media experience of regulation. Having spent four decades working as a journalist and executive, mostly in television news and current affairs, I am all too aware of the many legal restraints on journalism. Compliance with the law should have been ensured in newspapers by the editors’ code and, ideally, enforced by the Press Complaints Commission. The culture in some organisations led to the code being breached, and its ethics ignored, and the resulting squalor is documented in the Leveson report. Clearly, there is still a lot of uncertainty about what progress has been made in cross-party talks and with other initiatives. One thing that everybody seems to agree on is that the press must remain free from political meddling. Even with a degree of regulation, I believe that its independence is not under threat.
Coming as I do from a background in regulated public service television, I see no real cause for concern in the smidgen of legislation proposed to underpin a “recognition body”, set up simply to guarantee the independence of a self-regulating replacement for the Press Complaints Commission. The distinguished members of that body would check periodically on the independence and effectiveness of self-regulation by the new press trust. The alarms raised by some sections of the press seem to me out of all proportion to the threat. What is proposed is a much lighter touch than existing broadcasting regulation and legislation.
The BBC and independent television have been much more vulnerable than newspapers to direct political interference. Over the years Governments have tried to influence broadcasters’ output through appointments from among the great and the good to oversee broadcasting regulation. Fortunately, most chairs and board members, once appointed, were not inclined to compromise their personal integrity in pursuit of a political agenda.
Despite all the onerous regulation, the remarkable fact is that public service broadcasters have for the past half century or more produced respected news bulletins, high-quality documentaries and investigative current affairs series such as the series I once edited—“World in Action”. We had our rows with the Independent Television Authority but considerations of public interest almost always won out. The regulators would be consulted and required to approve secret filming, bugging of conversations, breaches of so-called “official secrets” or the use of confidential documents received from whistleblowers. Only rarely did they inhibit series such as “World in Action” from broadcasting and, if they did, we could predict that they would soon read about it in a newspaper.
Let me be clear: I do not wish any of these public service obligations on the press. My point is, if you are operating inside your own editor’s code as a newspaper journalist, you have very little to fear from regulation. Like others who have spoken, I have my reservations about some of the proposals floated by Lord Justice Leveson. Much as I admire Ofcom, it should not be involved in press regulation, nor would it want to be. The Information Commissioner is right to warn that tougher data protection laws,
“could have a ‘chilling effect’ on investigative journalism”.
Changes to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act might make it easier for the police to seize journalists’ documents, identify their sources and deter whistleblowers. Given these complexities, it is no surprise that deadlines for cross-party decisions are slipping. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, is not in his place, but he and his publishers have a lot of conflicting interests to reconcile, and I wish him well, but need it really take until the middle of the year for them to reach agreement? I hope that the members of the commission will follow the Prime Minister in welcoming Lord Justice Leveson’s suggestion of a conscience clause for working journalists. That is a long-standing demand of the National Union of Journalists and a reform that could help reinforce ethical considerations in newspaper practice. That change in newspaper culture has been demanded by many noble Lords today.
In television, we concluded that the legislation that required accurate, fair and impartial reporting helped generate the public trust and support that we needed when we were threatened by political pressures. Newspapers, of course, are very different in their opinionated reporting, provocative analysis and capacity to campaign and to make mischief—and long may they continue to do so. Regulation with the lightest touch in the manner proposed should not interfere with any of that. Nor can every issue be solved before a decision to legislate is taken. I say: get it done and see how it works out. Given the power of the press, they will certainly not be bullied. If they can enforce their codes and change the worst aspects of the old culture, they will attract much more public support—enough, I trust, to deter any politician who subsequently tries to interfere.
My Lords, while it goes without saying that a robust, free press is an essential ingredient in a free society, even the most cursory reading of Lord Justice Leveson’s excellent report confirms that there have been major problems with the culture, practices and ethics of some parts of our press.
As many noble Lords have alluded to today, this is not a new problem. The fact that in the past 70 years there have been seven major inquiries, including three royal commissions, suggests that this is the case. But what is new today is that the internet is now posing a fundamental challenge to, and major economic consequences for, the newspaper industry. This, as Lord Justice Leveson observes, is particularly severe for Britain’s regional and local newspapers, which provide a major contribution to the life of the communities within which they operate. I join the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich in paying tribute to the unique contribution made by the local media to local life. I hope that their voices will be heard in this post-Leveson debate.
The internet poses a much greater challenge to the future of a robust newspaper industry in this country than effective, independent self-regulation. If new providers are going to survive and prosper, either in print or digital form, we the public are going to have to continue to want to read those publications and pay for them in preference to free online blogs, social media or whatever comes next. We will surely do so only if the quality of the news coverage, the investigative reports, the features and the comment—whether in red-tops or broadsheets—are of a standard that makes us wish to do so. Faced with increasing choice, we will surely be willing to pay only for standards that we trust and are of the highest quality, and for more accurate, more challenging, wiser, and more entertaining words than are ever likely to be consistently available from other online sources. Standards will become more, not less, important and are, above all, about culture rather than only about rules, as my noble friend Lady Boothroyd expressed. An effective system of self-regulation, as put forward in the Leveson report, has a vital part to play in ensuring that these standards are met, primarily by providing an effective means of arbitration when they are challenged, and that redress is accessible to all when things go wrong. An effective regulatory system can also provide, in a sense, a kitemark trusted by readers.
However, such a system will be trusted only if it is seen to be truly independent, certainly of both the newspaper industry and the Government. I welcome the fact that much of the newspaper industry now seems to accept that although it will pay the bills for the regulatory system, it would do much better by not trying to control the system—or appearing to control it—as has been the case in the past.
Two vexed questions remain. First, how can we devise the process of validation for this independent self-regulatory system? Who verifies the work of the regulators? Secondly, how do we ensure the fullest coverage of the new independent self-regulatory system in order to prevent major newspaper groups exiting from the regulatory system, as happened under the Press Complaints Commission?
Of course, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, eloquently argued, it might be better to avoid statutory underpinning, if there were an easy way to do that, although I share the view that here we are considering statutory regulation of process and emphatically not of content. It may be that some sensible non-statutory basis for the validation process can be devised, although I remain to be convinced. An additional advantage of some statutory underpinning is that it could allow some benefits in law to provide the incentives to ensure the widest possible membership of an independent self-regulatory system.
My view remains—and here I join the noble Lord, Lord Giddens—that an effective regulatory system, trusted by the general public, is very much in the long-term interests of the newspaper industry itself in the digital age and that some very limited statutory underpinning may well be a sensible price to pay to ensure that this system is credible, long-lasting and widely accepted. As so many noble Lords have said today, the Leveson report provides us with a unique opportunity to grasp this nettle. I add my voice to those who say that we should do so.
When I saw my name listed as 50th on the List, I promise the House that I was ready to strike it out at any moment, but I feel that one area that has not been fully explored and that is the benefits to the press of the Leveson proposals, were they to be underpinned or recognised in statute.
I am a lifetime lover of newspapers. I have also never complained about the editorial content of a newspaper. When my party was attempting to get elected in the 1980s, newspapers did us a service; they reflected the views of the public. I also have to declare an interest as a former general manager of Express Newspapers, so I can see the arguments from both sides within the industry and outside.
I believe that as politicians we now have a duty to help the newspaper industry. They have lost the trust of the public, their readership is plummeting, journalists have been arrested, illegal actions have been admitted, lives have been destroyed and the industry is in serious financial difficulty. Yet newspapers have become so deeply entrenched in ideology and dogma that they are unable to hear that what is proposed for them is good for them.
I understand that their hysteria is not exclusive to them. It is a universal truth that none of us believes that we should be regulated ourselves, but that everyone else should be. It is in the industry’s interest to have statutory regulation and it does not bother me whether it is called underpinning or recognition.
The most important of these proposals is for the industry to embrace the statutory underpinning of a complaints system which includes ensuring we have a fit and proper arbitration service and which allows the courts to recognise whether a defendant or claimant has gone to the arbitration service prior to undertaking a court action.
I was surprised at the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, earlier, as I agree with his evidence to Leveson. When he was talking about an arbitration service he said:
“In my view the system would need statutory backing to operate meaningfully”.
Secondly, regulation would protect newspapers against powerful and wealthy people. Today, we have rightly concentrated on the damage that the press has done to members of the public but there is an untold story. Many powerful and wealthy people go straight to court as soon as their name is printed. Soon, newspapers back off those individuals as they can afford neither the time nor money to pursue them.
However, Leveson’s proposals would save newspapers a lot of money. Individuals would have to use the arbitration service or find their refusal published. Courts could recognise such behaviour in their judgments. Both would lead to a spotlight on the behaviour of these individuals and would enhance, not detract, from free speech.
Next, regulation would persuade investors that newspapers were a safe investment. What individual now without a blind passion and £1 million to waste would put their money into newspapers? There is no clear line of sight for what goes on in these organisations because of a lack of regulation.
Many of us in this house are non-executive directors. We represent the views of shareholders. What is one of the first things we do as soon as we get our board pack? We look at the complaints. We look at the complaints within a company. We look at the regulator in our industry. We ask questions.
This is not possible in the newspaper industry. We know that most newspapers suffocate complaints. Editors, executives, journalists and internal lawyers do their utmost to squash complaints and make it really, really difficult for any member of the public to raise a complaint. When they do apologise, invariably it is done begrudgingly and tucked away. Only statute will force a change in this culture, which is now so corrosive that it cannot be changed from the inside.
We talk much about how hacking was illegal and how legislation would deal with it, but I tell your Lordships that the journalists guilty of hacking did not start with criminal activity; they began with writing stuff about people that was inaccurate and they were never checked. None of us wants a situation where our criminal law deals with journalists. We all want bad behaviour to be nipped in the bud at the earliest opportunity.
Lastly, these measures would bring confidence in the press. We say that newspaper readership is in decline because of the internet, but readership was in decline long before the development of those sites. It began with the public feeling that they could not rely on what was written, so restoring public confidence must be the number one priority of the newspaper industry.
The world has changed and so, too, must regulation. Power is simply not concentrated in big institutions as it once was. The media are now available seven days a week and 24 hours a day, and their budgets are under pressure. Without the proper regulatory measures in place, it is so easy to ruin people’s lives at the stroke of a key.
If the Leveson proposals are enacted with statutory backing, they will help the newspaper industry. It will save them money, improve the quality of their product and begin to repair their reputation. Even though the industry is hostile to the proposals right now, it is our duty to protect newspapers from themselves, just as we would for any other industry.
I take up the challenge of my good friend—my noble friend Lord Alli—as a Back-Bencher. If the parties in the other place fail to reach agreement, I will certainly be prepared to introduce or amend legislation as appropriate. I hope that other Members will be prepared to do likewise.
My Lords, it saddens me that due to the behaviour of a limited number of MPs and Peers we are still condemned by the press for our expenses and are now treated as guilty until we have proven our innocence. We seem to have fallen into the same trap and condemned all the press today as ethically corrupt, but equally I believe that to be a wrong impression to have of this debate. That is not to say that some journalists have not behaved recklessly and outrageously, often with devastating effects. As we have witnessed, some might have gone even further and broken the law, but we must remember that there are already sanctions to deal with those people if proven guilty. Such journalists are a small minority of the press.
Lord Justice Leveson was right to highlight the collusion of editors and their indifference to knowledge of illegal behaviour. Any code of conduct must ensure better corporate governance with severe penalties for editors, who must start to take proper responsibility for material that is used and for what is printed. There is no doubt that they should tighten up the rules under which their reporters operate, but that is easy to say. Much more difficult is dealing with what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. Lord Justice Leveson states in paragraph 37 of the executive summary that at present there is “insufficient clarity” on this. That will always be the case unless very prescribed rules are laid down in statute. Let us not forget how some people have interpreted “insult” under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986—a subject we debated recently— to remind ourselves of the huge disparity between interpretation and expectation.
Following my wife’s suicide in 1994, I was the subject of intense media interest. I was pursued relentlessly for months by both journalists and the paparazzi, occasionally deceitfully, and a normal life was impossible. Since there has been quite a lot of Murdoch bashing, I have to say that the Murdoch press was not number one on my hate list. It was without doubt the most ghastly time of my life and inevitably both my children, who were at school, were hugely involved with and affected by this media circus. Unlike some who courted the press and were willing to sell their stories, we wanted privacy, but some of the press wanted a story—the more salacious the better—at almost any price. Sadly, but not unexpectedly, when a fact or truth emerged, the worst of the press ignored it, for it spoilt a good story under an eye-catching headline, but can one really blame them for that? It was and remains their job to get a story.
Today a great number of people still buy the newspapers that have behaved the worst, even when they know how inaccurate and unbalanced their articles are. They enjoy reading the gossip on others, and that is a legitimate market for the press to feed. In such situations it often seems irrelevant that the person who is caught up in such a maelstrom of events is first and foremost a human being with emotions and not just an inanimate object that one can pick up, play with and then put down at will. We have heard demands today for greater legal redress for such victims so that they can go to court against the press. Let us not go down that route. Some would not want to go to court because it would only prolong the press attention; others would not be able to afford it. There must be a better way forward. If members of the public were to stop buying newspapers or reading them online, the worst of the press would soon change their ways.
Today’s newspapers give us much more in the way of comment than news, which we receive from the internet, Twitter and Facebook. Control over unacceptable behaviour in the social media, both by the press and individuals, seems to me to be a much more worrying challenge, and one on which Lord Justice Leveson does not comment much. It is the elephant in the room. I commend the speech of my noble friend Lord Inglewood. We should all read it again, as it was the best speech that I heard today. To try to control the written word but not social media would not only be unjust but would fail to tackle the real problem on which we should focus.
I pay a huge tribute to the majority of our press. By and large they have served us very well. Over the years they have done an amazing job, and many injustices have been brought to light entirely because of their persistence. Almost every paper has led on at least one good campaign, such as the mistreatment of prisoners, tax dodgers, Thalidomide or match-fixing in cricket. It is worth remembering that it was a journalist who first revealed that another member of the press had been hacking mobile phones.
As long as there is a demand for gossip and news of other people’s misfortune, some of the press, either under pressure or hoping to make a name for themselves, will continue to overstep whatever bounds are agreed or set. At the same time, people want the press to behave—however that is defined. The two are irreconcilable without a strictly prescribed legal code of practice, which will undoubtedly be hugely controversial and contested. Yes, we need an independent regulatory body, but, despite what we have heard this afternoon, it would be very difficult to achieve. Once we have legislated to put it on a legal footing, there would be continual demands for a stronger body and an even stronger legislative code whenever in future the bounds were exceeded. Even discounting the increased state control, such rules would inevitably prevent others in the press from scrutinising, revealing and holding to account those whose actions should be exposed. If that were to happen, we would be a much poorer country.
So notwithstanding all that my children and I went through, I do not support a statutory basis for self-regulation. Whether there is or is not, we must not delude ourselves or others: some people, and as a result their children, will continue to get unnecessarily hurt in future, just as they have over so many generations. I fear that that is the price we must pay for as free a press as possible as one of the guardians of our democracy.
My Lords, on this rather dismal day in your Lordships’ House, I would like to cheer us up a bit by reflecting on the admirable maiden speech given some time ago by the noble Lord, Lord Trees. It combined wit and lucidity to our great advantage and I hope very much that we will hear from him on many future occasions.
I should also like to cheer up your Lordships with what I thought was the huge joke in the central part of the Leveson report. I do not know whether Lord Justice Leveson intended it as such. He assured us all that he had found no evidence whatever of a conspiracy between Her Majesty’s Government and the Murdoch press to do anything that either of them wanted. Who on earth thought that there would need to be a conspiracy between them? Everyone knew what Murdoch wanted and everyone knew what the Prime Minister wanted. They did not have to get together to discuss it. The fact that Lord Justice Leveson assures us that he found no evidence of any such meeting must be hugely reassuring.
As usual, I shall turn to a certain unpopular theme—the Press Complaints Commission. I had a very short dealing with the Press Complaints Commission and found it hugely supportive and very effective. I had some dealings with a rather slippery individual who was then the editor of the Financial Times. He had published a report in his newspaper which was—I will not say fraudulent—totally inaccurate and totally contrary to the truth. I communicated with him in a gentle way, as I usually do, one December and I got no acknowledgement or reply. I communicated with him a second time, in January, and again I got no acknowledgment or any reply. I sent him a third note saying, “It is now February and I am today getting in touch with the Press Complaints Commission”. Within about 20 minutes my telephone apparently rang and my secretary said, “It is the editor of the Financial Times”. I am afraid that I would shock your Lordships if I told you the reply I told her to give him but I instructed her to tell him that if he was going to communicate with me to do it in writing and that I was not going to speak to the gentleman. I got a full correction and an apology because that individual—still the editor of the Financial Times—was so concerned about having his behaviour exposed to the Press Complaints Commission. So the Press Complaints Commission can work. We have had such a culture change and such a tidal wave of anger over what happened in the scandals of the past few months that I believe it has every possibility of being effective again in the future.
I turn now to the more serious matters. Lord Justice Leveson said when he started his inquiry that the whole report would come down to one question—Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? He did not answer that question and did not deal with it very much himself. The Prime Minister said that “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is, God help us, Ofcom and the chairman of Ofcom. I could frighten your Lordships by telling you a fantasy tale about what a Prime Minister who had lost his marbles or one of his Secretaries of State who had equally lost his marbles might do by appointing a chairman of Ofcom. He might appoint a chairman who lied to the press; he might appoint a chairman who was in breach of the Official Secrets Act; he might appoint a chairman who, unbelievably, would disclose the facts of legal advice being given to a department; he might appoint a chairman who would intervene in a domestic political dispute between one government department and another and alter the press position in order to damage another Cabinet Minister. It is unthinkable, unbelievable, but that is what happened—and that is who we have got as chairman of Ofcom.
If anyone cares to challenge me, the behaviour of the head of the Department of Information in the DTI, going back 15 or more years, is in the fourth report from the Defence Committee, Session 1985-86. The behaviour of the current chairman of Ofcom was described in terms as tendentious, improper and disreputable. Before any of us look too smug about this, I regret to have to say that it was Labour appointment. I tackled the Minister concerned and asked him if he had gone mad when he made that appointment. He said, “Oh, that was many years ago”. It was like inviting Mr Dillinger to come on to your bank board because he has not robbed any banks over the past few years.
I pointed all this out to the Conservative Secretary of State, a man called Hunt. I said, “You did not make the appointment, but you are responsible for keeping her after it was disclosed to you what sort of individual you have here”. He relied on two flimsy bits of evidence, one from Select Committee hearings confirming this woman in her position. It was the most extraordinary set of Select Committee hearings you have ever heard. I read every single word of the oral hearings and I went through the written evidence as well. In all of that, not a single reference was made to the fact that Colette Bowe had been involved in the Westland scandal up to her neck. In fact, the chairman of that Select Committee, a rather weak young man called Whittingdale, who ought of course to have resiled from the hearings, held her hand, told her what a splendid lady she was and wished her good luck. That is what we are stuck with at the moment.
If anyone thinks this is irrelevant or unimportant, let me put this to your Lordships. Let us assume that Ofcom decides that Mr Murdoch is not a suitable person to be controlling a large chunk of our media and tries to disqualify him from so doing. What if Mr Murdoch then says, “Who the hell are you to speak to me like that? I have not been censured by a Select Committee of the House of Commons. My behaviour has not been called disreputable. I have not been behaving in a tendentious way. How dare you?”. That is where Ministers are likely to find themselves unless something is done quickly about this awful mess. I hope very much that we can have an assurance from the Minister, who has only just inherited this brief, that he will seek to take to the Prime Minister the request that all references to Ofcom are out and that Ofcom has no business whatever being involved in these matters. I personally support Leveson.
My Lords, I rise as the tail-end Charlie in what has been a really admirable debate. It has demonstrated, if demonstration is needed, the extraordinary wealth of experience in this House because virtually every vantage point has been represented. I, too, commend the noble Lord, Lord Trees, on his maiden speech, not least because he delivered it without notes. I look forward to his contributions in the future.
Briefly, because it needs to be said, I must express my admiration for the press as a whole despite the miserable events to which the Leveson inquiry relates. I am someone who would say that, by and large, we have an admirable press that does admirable work. We should acknowledge in all humility that without the bravery of the Daily Telegraph, our own appalling failings would not have seen the light of day as soon as they were. It was a classic example of what is best in the press and, indeed, why there is a degree of tension between us as politicians and the press.
I have been involved with the press over many decades. I was lucky enough to be a trustee of the Scott Trust, which owns the Guardian, the Observer and a whole fleet of regional newspapers. I presented current affairs programmes for London Weekend Television and Anglia Television, and as a solicitor I have had a good deal of professional involvement, usually acting for members of the public and politicians who have been defamed by the press. I think that I have had a fair old view of the different issues and the practical problems that have to be confronted and dealt with.
We have all said how grateful we are to Lord Justice Leveson because his task was a formidable one which he has discharged formidably. In particular, his proposal vis-à-vis an ethical code, which has been referred to by other noble Lords, is at the heart of what should be a new beginning for the press, as indeed is the conscience clause that will underpin it and the whistleblowing protection which is also vital for the future. I happen to agree with those noble Lords—I think it is the majority—who have said, reluctantly, that statutory underpinning may be necessary. It is necessary and I have to say, too, that I do not believe that it is the thin end of the wedge. If I felt that, I would not go along with it. However, I believe that it is an essential coping stone to the new aegis. I am sure that, if and when the time comes, we will debate the matters with wisdom and, I hope, reach a sensible conclusion.
There is one main issue on which I take a different view from Lord Justice Leveson, which is over the role of the law in all this. In paragraphs 47 and 48 of the summary of his report—a 46-page summary, it must be said—he rejects the idea that the powerless state of affairs revealed by his inquiry was,
“caused by a failure in the operation of the criminal law”.
He goes on to add that:
“More rigorous application of the criminal law, however, does not and will not provide the solution”.
I would not say that it provides the solution but I do believe that a much more vigorous implementation of the laws we have, let alone the laws we might have, is essential. Most of all, it is essential for the press itself, as everybody agrees that it has reached a low ebb. It is vital that restoration of public trust in the press—which is so important, as indeed is public trust in us, the police and so on—must reside in the fact that the laws that we have must be implemented. However, they are notably not implemented.
It is not a fair question to put at this stage to my noble friend the Minister who will sum up, but it would be interesting to know how many provisions of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 or of the Data Protection Act 1998 have ever been enforced against the police. It is a besetting sin of this Parliament that we legislate as if there is no tomorrow—14,000 to 15,000 pages of new statute law a year with only 2,000 or 3,000 pages of repeals—and then take no interest in whether that law is implemented; or, if it is, with what consistency or results. I put it to the Minister that although I believe that Lord Justice Leveson has not sufficiently recognised the role of enforcement in his otherwise wise report, the Government should look at it very closely and intensely.
One instance which Lord Justice Leveson does refer to in his report is after Clive Goodman was prosecuted and convicted in 2006 and the police decided not to commence an inquiry because they were distracted by the more important matter of terrorism. It simply is not good enough that other priorities completely drive such an important estate as the press off the playing field, so to speak, in a case like that. It was a number of years later, and only after further revelations in the Guardian and the New York Times, that the police came back to this. I put this all on a par with the extraordinary and grotesque failure of HMRC to enforce our tax laws—with, again, awful results in terms of public confidence and for the Exchequer—and the awful failure of our regulatory authorities to enforce financial services legislation, which is abundant. I cannot exaggerate the huge importance of the impact. I believe that a few exemplary prosecutions and convictions, particularly of the bosses of the press—not just the little guy—would be galvanic. They could not be ignored. They would be noted. They would uphold and enforce the vast majority of journalists who want to do a good, honourable and ethical job. At this time of night, that is my main point and I am grateful for the chance to have this debate today.
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I might ask him why he can praise the press so warmly in the early stages of his speech, whereas very few newspapers and very few media give any attention at all to the doings of this House or the other place.
I think I heard the noble Lord: why do I praise the press when they give so little attention to the doings of this House? I am not sure that I agree with him that they give so little attention to this House and the other place. It is true that some of the red tops give precious little consideration but then they give precious little consideration to anything other than—I was going to be rude—
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to what has been a really excellent debate today. In particular, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Trees, for his excellent maiden speech. He may have had to wait but his incisive analysis, his interesting parallels with the professions and his witty quotation demonstrate that the wait was worthwhile. Indeed, the whole debate has been extremely good, including the last few speeches, which took us off in strange and interesting directions. I am not sure that Admiral Byng should really be prayed in aid so late in the debate because I think he deserves more attention than we were able to give him.
There seem to have been four strands in our discussions today. The balance between individual privacy and freedom of the press is obviously the underlying thread of all this, and I will come back to it. The need to deal with the technology shift in our news production and dissemination, with the transfer to the internet and the implications of all that for the current business model in the press, is obviously a really big issue. It was not well covered in the Leveson report, as has been said, but it will be of increasing importance as we go forward, although I do not think it is a blocker on some of the issues that we need to focus on today. The important issue of the concentration of ownership has to be addressed. Again, as has been mentioned, it is not well covered in the report, but there are ways in which we can continue to keep a focus on that; there are a number of opportunities in the near future to do so.
The main debate today, and the one I will spend most of my time on, is on what the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, referred to as a false choice. We must be careful of false choices apparently being offered by the press, between a free press on the one hand and government regulation of the press on the other. Of course, it is a much more complicated and complex issue than that.
I was interested in the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and I think we all applaud his efforts in what he is trying to do. Having said that, one has to bear in mind, as my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland advised, that a lot of what he is about is necessary but it will not be sufficient to get us to where we want to get.
This debate is titled as, and indeed needs to focus on, the report itself. Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on the issues that we have been touching on are very clear. He recommends a voluntary system of independent regulation. He recommends a process by which an independent regulatory system devised and set up by the publishers themselves can be verified by a “recognition body”, for the very important reason that the public, particularly the victims, can thereby be confident that it works; in return for that, members of the body can get legal benefits. Lord Justice Leveson suggests that, mainly on cost and efficiency grounds, Ofcom could be the body that undertakes the verification but he refers to and prefers a recognition commission or recognition commissioner. As the noble Lords, Lord Fowler and Lord Lamont, stressed, the powers being taken are of scrutiny not supervision. Lord Justice Leveson considers the recognition requirements the minimum necessary for an independent and effective self-regulator, but some, including the victims, would go a lot further than that.
Let us be clear: we are talking about taking statutory powers that concern process but not content and cover the independence of the people involved in the regulatory body, its financial security, its powers to correct or to seek apologies, to seek sanctions, to undertake investigations and arbitration, and to have the power to publish enough information to allow the public to judge its effectiveness. As has been said, notably by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, it is a very clever balance and we on this side support it. There is more: we need to be clear that despite some of the rhetoric that we have heard today, this package would also guarantee in statute—I think for the first time—the freedom of the press from government. That seems a very important consideration.
Like many noble Lords, I believe that the game changer this time round and the context for this report is the anguish felt by ordinary citizens who have not sought public exposure of their lives but who, like the Dowlers and McCanns, have been subject to outrageous behaviours from the press. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, is our own expert by experience and put it very well when she spoke earlier with such dignity. At the end of the day, we in Parliament have to be able to say to those victims that we have seen them right. As my noble friend Lord Giddens said, the public will never forgive us if we cock this up this time round.
We should remember that the public are overwhelmingly in support of the establishment of an independent regulator backed by law. That is born out by a series of polls by the Media Standards Trust, Hacked Off, the Carnegie Trust and the IPPR. The poll recently commissioned by the Sunday Times found that by three to one the public think that the press needs much tougher independent regulation, with fines for newspapers that behave badly. Some 58% think that new laws should be passed by MPs to encourage newspapers to join this new system of regulation, with only 26% opposing such legislation.
There are now four separate initiatives that would deliver for us the recommendations of the Leveson report, the most recent being the suggestion of a royal charter. Others have mentioned during the debate why a royal charter approach is inappropriate. I simply add that it seems wrongly focused in its conception. It is an executive act explicitly associated with the monarch. Despite her recent visit to the Cabinet, or perhaps because of it, it is surely inappropriate to deploy the prestige of the monarch in what might be a controversial and constitutionally inappropriate device, whose purpose is at heart to bypass Parliament. A royal charter can of course be revoked or amended by the monarch at will, which in effect means by her Ministers. As has already been said, she is obliged to accept their advice, so a device to avoid legislation places control of the recognising body in the hands of the Executive. Constitutionally, it is not possible to restrict the ability of the monarch to amend or revoke at will. In addition, a royal charter cannot authorise the body created to raise money or authorise government expenditure, so inevitably we are drawn back to statute to make sure it works in any case. Having said all that, it may be possible to recognise or find a way of creating an independent press regulator by royal charter and to support or underpin it with appropriate legislation. On this side, we will keep an open mind on that matter until such time as the discussions are completed.
Having cleared the ground, the heart of today’s debate is, as my noble friend Lord Alli said, the question of whether we have independent self-regulation backed by law or not. We believe that we need that in statute because the current system of self-regulation has failed—year after year for 70 years and despite seven major reports. St Augustine springs to mind once again. In any case, the problem with a purely self-regulatory body is that there is still an irreconcilable conflict of interest when those doing the judging—the press—are those being judged. Again, what is being proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and others is necessary but not sufficient. We believe that Lord Justice Leveson’s answer to that decades-long problem is ingenious: it ensures that the press regulates itself, independent of both government and its own interests, but it also ensures that there is statutory backing for the system.
There are arguments against statute and I want to go through them quickly. The first is that any statute affecting the press automatically ends a free press but, as has been mentioned, the press is already subject to legislation. Section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998, their carve-out for VAT and the regulations currently under consideration in this House on defamation are examples—there are many—and the Leveson report specifies them. It is absurd to hold that having any law mentioning the press undermines freedom.
Secondly, it is argued that putting the press complaints system on a statutory basis amounts to regulation of the press but such a statute would guarantee only the system, not the regulation itself. The oversight body—the one prescribed by statute—would have no role in hearing complaints, no role in deciding whether they are justified, no role in laying down penalties and absolutely no role in deciding whether anything does or does not go into a newspaper.
Thirdly, there is the argument that if Parliament legislates on this issue, it might be the thin end of the wedge but in our system Parliament is and must remain sovereign. Basically, we have to trust our elected and appointed representatives to make and change laws. That is our system, for better or worse. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said, we also have to bear in mind that the press cannot become a law unto themselves.
Fourthly, it has been argued that what is proposed would inevitably mean cumbersome legislation but, as we have already heard from my noble friend Lady Jay, the Irish law contains provisions that are equivalent to proposals in Leveson recognising the Irish press council. It is simply one clause and one schedule. The Bill that we have recently published—I gather that the others are similar—shows that this is all feasible within a very few pages. Indeed, I hope this is the way forward.
Finally, there is the argument that Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals would undermine freedom of speech but, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, said, the freedom of the press is essential but so, too, is that other freedom: the freedom of a private citizen to go about their business without harassment, intrusion or the gross invasion of their grief and trauma. I was interested in what the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said on this point but with the deepest respect I disagree. A free press must be a responsible press. It must expose the abuse of power but it must also not abuse its own power. That is what this debate at heart is about. It is an issue which cannot now be left unresolved and that is why we should take forward Lord Justice Leveson’s proposals with all convenient speed.
In conclusion, I join many noble Lords in paying tribute to the work of Lord Justice Leveson, the rigour with which he conducted the inquiry and the humanity with which he enabled victims of some appalling injustices to have a proper hearing. For many of them, it meant reliving the pain and trauma of their abuse by the press but they did so with enormous courage and determination because they had found a safe haven. The stories they told made many people feel moved, incredulous and appalled—and made us all very angry.
As my noble friend Lady Jones said, it is important to remember that the voices heard in the inquiry were just a small sample of press harassment and misrepresentation which has become commonplace, week in and week out, for those struggling with tragedies in their lives—people who never sought to become the story. As we have heard, that is continuing. The fact is that the Leveson inquiry should never have been necessary. The catalogue of incidents that were described and the many more that they represent should never have been allowed to happen. However, let me end with a wish that was also expressed by many noble Lords: that the spirit of consensus which has been so evident across the parties on this issue continues and that we can, working together, solve this problem, but quickly.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, for that summing-up of the debate and for his contribution, which goes with all the others that have informed this debate. It is nearly seven hours since my noble friend Lord Younger of Leckie opened this debate, which asks us to take note. I am sure that we all have been taking note during this time. I remember that when we postponed this debate, all having sat here expecting it that evening, the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, wondered whether perhaps it would all happen before we got to talk about it again. Well, it has not all happened and this debate has provided a really good forum for us in this House to inform future discussions and give our points of view. The noble Baroness, Lady Liddell of Coatdyke, referred to the circumstances of our debate, but I was focused on her view of the high level of consensus that had been generated by the time that she spoke, and it has continued in noble Lords’ contributions since then.
My noble friend Lord Younger referred to the honour that I had to reply to this debate. I laughed at the time, but actually it has been an honour to be involved in it in any way. This is a serious issue, and the debate has had very thoughtful contributions—indeed, it has been the House of Lords at its best.
It was a particular pleasure to hear the fine maiden speech from the noble Lord, Lord Trees, and I join all other noble Lords in welcoming him to the House. Indeed, just as my noble friend Lord Fowler wished him long life, so do we. The noble Lord and I know each other, and his expertise in the veterinary profession will greatly assist the House in its consideration of many debates concerning animal health and welfare and, as we have learnt today, many other matters too.
Before I go on to the substance of the debate, I think that we as a House should thank Lord Justice Leveson for his work in examining so thoroughly and with such integrity such a complex set of circumstances and issues. The shameless, distasteful and blatantly illegal hacking of mobile telephones of victims of crime and their families, and the intrusions into people’s privacy at the most distressing time of their lives, shocked us all. These events have led to a change in the public’s attitude to the press, and the Government have responded to the public’s concern by setting up Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry. His report goes to the heart of some of our country’s most important institutions, including the press and the police. He rightly praises the freedom of speech that has enabled countless examples of truly exemplary investigative journalism in this country and continues to enable the Government and the police to be held to account by the media. It is vital that we protect that freedom as a cornerstone of our democracy, and the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, made a very thoughtful speech about the nature of that freedom.
However, Lord Justice Leveson strongly criticises a culture of severe wrongdoing on the part of certain elements of the press that seriously undermines public confidence in the way that that freedom has been exercised. There are serious issues, and the Government recognise the strength of feeling within this House, among the victims of phone hacking and among the public more generally. Lord Justice Leveson called the havoc that was wreaked on the lives of innocent people “outrageous”. Noble Lords have strongly reinforced that description, perhaps most graphically my noble friend Lord Fowler, while “horrific” was the word used by my noble friend Lord Lamont. We heard directly from the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, and my noble friend Lord Caithness. That is why we have been considering this issue here today, and I am grateful that so many noble Lords have made a contribution to this discussion.
How we achieve success has been widely debated. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, about the Irish system, and we have been told by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, of its shortcomings. We have been informed of the optimism of my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral that a solution may be found that is compatible with Lord Justice Leveson’s ideas. I suspect that many others share that hope. I thank him for his determination and wish him well. My noble friend Lord Stoneham has a clear insight into these issues, and the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, summed up the position of many who support the endeavour of achieving it without legislation. However, even those speakers who doubted the chances of success without a statutory underpinning recognise the value of the structure that my noble friend Lord Hunt envisages.
I start by going through the central issue of media regulation as we see it. We have made it clear since the report was published that we completely accept the central principles of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations: that an independent regulatory body should be established; that it should be independent in terms of who is appointed to it and its funding; that it should set out a code of standards with which the press must comply; that it should provide an accessible arbitration service for dispute resolution; that it should ensure a mechanism for rapid complaints handling; and that it should have the power to impose significant fines for breaches of the code.
Of course, this has taken place against a background of meetings. The Government are working to come up with the best possible solution for implementation of the new press recognition body required under Leveson. The Government have drawn up a draft Bill to examine the implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s legislative recommendations, and this is alongside other Bills drawn up by the Opposition, by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill—who is not in his place, as he has not been feeling well this afternoon—and by the campaign group Hacked Off. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, that there have been five meetings with Hacked Off; in fact, yesterday, the Secretary of State met with Hacked Off again. There have also been five meetings between DCMS Ministers and the press since the report. I reassure my noble friend Lady Buscombe that press proprietors have been included in these discussions. However, it is the output of the papers, not the ownership, that is really at the bottom of all this. I will go on to talk about plurality, because that issue came up and it is important that we have a chance to factor it in.
However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has expressed serious concerns about introducing a statutory element to regulation. The Government are also exploring a number of ways to ensure rigorous and independent oversight of the new regulatory system without the need for statute. This includes consideration of the proposal to verify a new system via a royal charter to ensure the independence of that verification from Parliament. It can be said that a royal charter has many virtues. It provides a body with the requisite independence. It can also be supported by safeguards so that the purpose of the body cannot change over time without scrutiny. However, as my noble friend Lord Astor pointed out, there are some weaknesses; the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, went into these in some detail.
The Government are continuing discussions with all sides, including, crucially, looking at ways in which Parliament can be involved without interfering with the independence of the press. I also note that the press has suggested the idea of a charitable trust—or a trust of some description—in order to set up the new recognition body. The Government will consider this suggestion carefully; however, we are clear that whatever solution is eventually agreed, it must be compliant with those principles with which I started the substance of my speech, enunciated by Lord Justice Leveson in his report.
Most importantly, as Lord Justice Leveson himself recommends, the press must put its own house in order. A series of meetings between the press and the Government have already taken place and we are confident that that work is progressing positively. Cross-party discussions are continuing, with the aim of reaching a consensus on the way forward. We all agree that our solution must strike the right balance between protection of the rights and privacy of individuals and the freedom of the press, which is central to our democracy and must be defended vigorously. For this reason, I am sure that the usual channels will ensure that these issues return to the House once those discussions have concluded.
Let me be clear: there is no government position on these issues. We are supporting all attempts to achieve a consensus. We are working on cross-party agreement, which I think all noble Lords would like to see underlie the solution.
Perhaps I may take noble Lords through some particular aspects. I will start with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich who, along with the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and other noble Lords, mentioned the importance of the regional and local press as part of our press media. They were at pains to emphasise that we should recognise that any solution should not impede that section of the press. I can say that, despite a rapid decline a few years ago in local papers and the regional press, the signs are that that sector is recovering. I tend to take the view of the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, about the future of the British press. He took a fairly robust view and I agree with him that the demand for information and entertainment is such in this country that the advent of new media does not necessarily mean that the print press will disappear. It is not a zero-sum game. The truth is that the press will need to change and not just in terms of its standards but also in terms of how it presents itself.
This is a good point at which to talk about plurality because that is something which a number of noble Lords said had not been mentioned in Leveson as a key element. The noble Lords, Lord Sharkey, Lord Stoneham of Droxford, Lord Donoughue and Lord Whitty, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Scotland of Asthal, all talked about this issue. It rumbled on as a key area of concern. We need to agree that we should consider how we deal with change in growth within the press and how we get the mechanism right. An effective media ownership regime must strike the right balance between securing plurality and allowing growth. We want carefully to consider Ofcom’s constructive suggestions for strengthening the media ownership regime. We agree that online media should be considered in any assessment of plurality and recognise the complexity of doing so. It was the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who talked about the complexity of measuring and dealing with these things. It is complex. In some ways, the solution lies in trying to find a way to make complexity simple, because the noble Lord also pointed out that any regime needs to be understandable and capable of being seen to be proper. Making the complex simple might be a theme for today and our discussions in general as we try to tackle this problem.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, asked what would happen if there were a fire sale down at News International. I hesitate to suggest that such a thing might happen, but of course it would be dealt with as any other change of ownership is dealt with within the press. The authorities would deal with it in the usual way. It is a hypothetical question, but we have mechanisms for dealing with these problems.
Perhaps I may now deal with data protection issues. Lord Justice Leveson has considered issues of data protection and investigative journalism, including the role of the Information Commissioner to investigate and rule on public interest. As the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made clear in another place, we need to give careful consideration to these proposals. As Lord Justice Leveson himself acknowledges, their implementation would go to the very heart of the balance between the freedom of the press and every individual’s right to a private life. It was interesting to hear the views of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, on that particular issue.
On the press and the politicians, Lord Justice Leveson finds that the relationship between politicians of all parties and the press has, over the past 30 to 35 years, become too close, to the point where it is perhaps not in the public interest. This Government have introduced greater transparency to these relationships. However, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the Government accept the recommendation that these interactions should be more open still. It clearly is in all our interests that the public should trust their representatives and legislators and that they are not engaged in self-serving relationships behind closed doors. I think that this House would agree with that.
Lord Justice Leveson makes clear that he has not seen any evidence that corruption is endemic in the police nor that there is a widespread problem of corrupt relationships between the police and the press. We should welcome those conclusions. The noble Lord, Lord Alli, was right to draw attention to this issue and my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury was right to draw attention to the need to enforce the laws that we have.
We broadly welcome Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on policing and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will be announcing a number of measures designed to strengthen integrity and transparency in policing further, including measures to implement recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson.
The noble Lord, Lord Giddens, made a point about the growing media outside the press. As I have said, I do not believe that the print press is threatened by such media but it is clear that any future solution for press regulation must be future-proofed and sufficiently flexible to take account of the challenges and opportunities that digital media present. I see that I am running out of time, but that is not entirely surprising given the length of the debate.
I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Gilbert, that we do not favour Ofcom as the recognition body proposed by Lord Justice Leveson. My noble friend Lord Phillips asked about prosecutions against the media. The Director of Public Prosecutions recently introduced new guidelines on prosecutions involving the media, including considerations of public interest. I cannot comment on individual cases.
In summary, we come back to where my noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral was in presenting what he was trying to achieve. My noble friend Lord Wakeham reiterated his view that the new regulatory regime would need to be substantially tougher than the current arrangements. He saw the new regime as having real teeth but perhaps being overseen by a lay-dominated board. My noble friend Lord Trimble came to a similar conclusion, along with the noble Lord, Lord Soley. However, many noble Lords felt that oversight would require statutory underpinning.
There is that difference perhaps, but there is much common ground, which is why I am encouraged from this debate that a solution based on consensus is possible. That has been the value of this debate and I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have participated. As my noble friend moved the Motion earlier, I hope that the House will take note of it.
It would be helpful for the House if, in closing, the Minister could sketch out the timescale for these debates. I appreciate that it is not entirely in his hands and that other factors may be going on. I think that everyone thought that this process would move reasonably fast. There are difficulties. There is a lot to learn, a lot to listen to and a lot to discuss, but frustration will build up if nothing is going to happen. Perhaps a word on the timetable would be helpful.
I cannot give a timetable, because it is not in my gift, of course. There are a number of different bodies involved. But I think it would be helpful, after such a productive debate today, for the usual channels to take notice of it—and we will have time to debate this issue as it progresses. I suspect that this is not going to be a Moses-like event, with tablets of stone coming down. I think that we will work our way towards the truth. I hope that it is the sentiment of Members of this House that we all feel that we have played some part towards getting a solution. I am sure that the usual channels would be quite happy to enable us to talk further about it. I am sorry that I cannot give a timetable.
House adjourned at 5.10 pm.