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Press Regulation

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Maria Miller, has made the following Statement:

“We all agree that what is needed is a workable and effective system of press self-regulation. Equally, I believe that we must protect our free press while striking the right balance between independence and redress for individuals. There is no question of undermining the press’s ability to criticise or make judgments—indeed, that underpins our democracy and holds us to account. However, we are talking today about ensuring that the public has a fair system of redress through which to seek to challenge mistakes and errors when necessary.

I have always echoed Leveson in saying that the success of any new system will be seen in an approach that offers justice and fairness for the public and clearly protects the freedom of the press. This House will be fully aware of the careful deliberations following the publication of Leveson’s report and the weight of responsibility that comes with implementing that system.

Significant progress has been made since I last updated the House, particularly by the press themselves, who are well down the track of setting up their own self-regulatory body. Indeed, all involved in the process now consider a royal charter to oversee this regulatory body to be the correct way forward. Just six months ago this seemed impossible. What we are now talking about are differences of opinion in how a royal charter should be constructed.

The committee of the Privy Council is unable to recommend that the press’s proposal for a royal charter be granted. While there are areas where it is clearly acceptable, it is unable to comply with some important Leveson principles and, indeed, government policy, such as in the areas of independence and access to arbitration. A copy of this recommendation letter has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses so that honourable and right honourable Members have the opportunity to look at this in some detail.

In the light of this, we will be taking forward the cross-party charter, which was debated in this House. The cross-party charter will be on the agenda at a specially convened meeting of the Privy Council on 30 October.

In the interim, I believe that we should finish making our charter workable so it will meaningfully deliver independent and effective self-regulation. We have already improved the drafting in the cross-party charter, and we have worked with the Scottish Government and made sure that the press do not have to worry about complying with different frameworks on either side of the border. Further, we have had discussions with the Commissioner for Public Appointments to clarify how his role will work—all important improvements.

And, having considered the press charter, the committee has identified two substantive areas—access to arbitration and the editors’ code—where we could improve what is in the 18 March draft. The right honourable Member for Peckham opposite agrees—indeed, all three parties agree—that these areas could indeed benefit from further consideration. As such, all three political parties will work together in the forthcoming days and produce a final draft of the cross-party charter to place in the Libraries of both Houses on Friday. This will allow parliamentarians, the public, the press and whoever to see the version we intend to seal. If any specific change cannot be agreed by all three parties, we will revert to the 18 March charter debated by Parliament.

We have an opportunity to take a final look at our charter—an opportunity to bring all parties together and ensure that the final charter is both workable and effective. We have a responsibility to make sure that what we do here will be effective and stand the test of time, so we need to make it the best it can be. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right. I think we all today want to do that and give individuals access to redress while safeguarding this country’s free press, which forms such a vital part of our democracy”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement on independent self-regulation of the press, made a short time ago in the other place.

I suppose that we should be grateful to the powers that be for the processes that have allowed us to identify a little more closely what happens in Privy Council matters, and how things are looked at and agreed. I think that we have all been a little astonished at some of the things that have come out, but at least it is beginning to come out, and for that we should be grateful.

We welcome the assurance just given that the Government, and indeed the Conservative Party, remain committed to the introduction of a royal charter that gives redress to victims when the press breach their code of conduct, while in no way interfering with the freedom of the press. As the Statement says, this is about,

“ensuring that the public has a fair system of redress through which to seek to challenge mistakes and errors when necessary”.

This is the position of the Labour Party. Labour supports a free and irreverent press as being essential to democracy. We do not support any state control of the press.

It is almost a year since the Leveson report was published. We accept the central recommendations of the report—namely, the need for a new system of independent self-regulation of the press, guaranteed by law. We strongly believe that there are real benefits if we work on a cross-party basis to implement these recommendations.

Your Lordship’s House will recall that Leveson’s proposal has the press setting up their own independent self-regulatory body, with an independent recognition body, independent of politicians and the press, ensuring that the self-regulator remains independent and effective. I should be grateful if the Minister would confirm, when he responds, that the Government’s intention remains that of ensuring that the interests of the victims are paramount and that the Government will introduce a Leveson-compliant independent complaints system for the press.

We believe that the parliamentary charter, the one put before the House of Commons in March 2013 by the Prime Minister, with the support of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and which was approved overwhelmingly by both Houses of Parliament, should have been submitted for consideration at the Privy Council meeting tomorrow. We regret that we will not be going to that meeting.

There has been too much delay. However, I accept that, given that we now know that the committee of the Privy Council will be unable to recommend the press’s proposal for a royal charter, there is at least a case for using the time available before the special meeting of the Privy Council on 30 October to finalise the original charter. There are, in fact, concerns from the regional press and there is, as has been mentioned, a Scottish dimension. There may, indeed, be merit in looking at the editors’ code.

However, I should be grateful if the Minister could confirm to your Lordship’s House the process that I understand that the representatives of the Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour parties have agreed will be followed to finalise the charter, and if he could also confirm that we will have absolute transparency of the process from herein. Confidence has already been shaken by the time and effort given to the press proposals and we now know that some drafting changes are being proposed to the original wording.

Can he therefore confirm: that following discussions on possible improvements to the March 2013 charter, the Secretary of State will place before the House the final version of the charter, if it has been agreed by all three parties, before the end of this week; that if the three party leaders cannot agree on changes to improve the charter of 18 March by the end of this week, then that original charter, as agreed by both Houses of Parliament, will not be changed; and that only a version of the 18 March charter agreed by all three party leaders will be the one put forward to the Privy Council at its special meeting on 30 October?

Does the Minister agree with me that the most important thing is for us to get an agreed version of the parliamentary charter sealed, to get a recognition panel established, and for a regulator to be set up? We must ensure that there will be a fair and effective complaints system independent of the press and independent of politicians.

We must not miss this historic opportunity for reform. We must ensure that what the press did to the Dowlers, the McCanns, to Abigail Witchalls’ family and to others, who suffered so terribly, can never happen again. As the Prime Minister said to the Leveson inquiry, “that’s the test of all of this. It’s not: do the politicians and press feel happy with what we get? It is: are we protecting people who have been caught up and absolutely thrown to the wolves”. So let us have no further delay. Parliament has decided; let us get on and implement Leveson.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his initial comments. I would say that it has been an education for me throughout this entire process, and while I have yet to understand all the processes of the Privy Council, the truth is that this matter clearly has been considered by the committee of the Privy Council with extreme care.

I should like to go through the points that the noble Lord has made and I shall start with the interests of the victims, as I will conclude with them, because this is why your Lordships are sitting here now—to ensure that what happened does not happen again, that we have the right system in place, that there is a change in culture and that certain parts of the press that lost their way recognise that this is not reasonable or acceptable to the nation. So I very much endorse the importance of the interests of victims and of ensuring that what people went through does not happen to other people.

The noble Lord mentioned delay. I entirely understand your Lordships’ frustrations, as indeed I have experienced, that this matter has taken quite a long time. However, the point about what we are seeking in these next few days with the right honourable Member for Peckham, my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness and the Secretary of State regarding these points on the work of the committee of the Privy Council is to see whether in these two areas in particular there may be reasonable and responsible adjustments, if the representatives of the three parties agree, which may make more practical sense. I should, however, like first to confirm that, as the Secretary of State said in the other place, the version of the cross-party charter will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses this Friday and that, if the three parties cannot agree to the thoughts of the committee that there may be this area of further consideration, the version of the 18 March will stand. The point is to see whether there can be some reasonable adjustments, particularly on the arbitration element relating to the concerns of local and regional newspapers. Lord Justice Leveson was particularly mindful of the importance of regional and local papers in the nation’s life. Those are the areas that the three parliamentarians will consider.

The noble Lord also mentioned the importance of sealing the cross-party charter, the establishment of the recognition body and the press’s self-regulatory body. I entirely agree. We need to get moving on ensuring that what we have done over these preceding months, timely though they may be—I emphasise that I understand the frustrations of your Lordships—will achieve a lasting settlement and that members of the press will understand that it is a wish not only of Parliament but of the nation that we move on in a responsible and reasonable way. I conclude with the noble Lord’s point about the test. The test of all the work that everyone has tried to achieve is that what happened before does not happen again.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to take action but I hope that this is the last act. This play has now been running for almost two years and I think that we are all impatient to make progress. Does the Minister agree that this charter will in no way interfere with the freedom of newspapers to express their views and that the concern is, and always has been, about members of the public having their rights directly infringed and the total failure of the previous Press Complaints Commission to do anything about those abuses?

Surely, what we need now is basically very simple. We need an independent and effective commission which is seen as independent and which is checked periodically to ensure that it remains effective. We need that sooner rather than later.

I thank my noble friend. All I can say is that, for the sake of the victims and from the nation’s point of view, I very much hope that this is the final stage of important work to ensure that there is a change in attitude and culture. I think that what we have in place for this week is to show that progress really is intended. It always has been intended. From my discussions with the Secretary of State, I know that she is absolutely clear that we need to make progress. The real essence of why the royal charter was first put forward is to see that the freedom and the independence of the press in terms of its self-regulation ensure that there is this freedom for the press to hold us and others to proper account. As my noble friend has said, abuses should not be part of what the press is undertaking. We need to ensure that we get this up and running and that this abuse does not happen again.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement made by the Secretary of State, particularly that the cross-party charter will be signed on 30 October. It is an unfortunate delay. It is time to act and the promise is there. The parliamentary version of the royal charter, which is designed to underpin the new independent self-regulator, was approved by Parliament in March. Even that charter was a substantial departure from the Leveson report, which called for statutory underpinning. It had 10 concessions to the press. Will the Minister confirm that no further concessions to the press will be made this week before the charter’s publication on Friday?

I thank the noble Baroness for her comments and I understand what she said about an unfortunate delay. However, I hope that I have explained that it will not be put forward tomorrow because there is to be further work, which I think all three parties agree would be sensible to consider and discuss given the committee of the Privy Council’s view that there are areas that should be looked at again.

In terms of the word “concession”, the intention is to see whether there are practical ways to address these issues about the arbitration situation for local and regional newspapers and the standards code, which are intended to make this a workable proposition. I do not see them as concessions. This is not about concessions but about seeking to ensure that we have a workable solution.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the cross-party charter in no way threatens press freedom? I speak as a journalist. Nothing in it will interfere with or undermine what we all recognise as crucial to our democracy; namely, press freedom. Indeed, Geoffrey Levy will remain free to publish his opinion, as will those who disagree with him. This charter addresses the ability of victims and those who have experienced unacceptable intrusion to achieve redress. Does the Minister agree that we should get on with making sure that this charter comes into being? Will he confirm that that will be on 30 October?

I thank my noble friend for re-emphasising that the whole intention of the royal charter is not to undermine press freedom. It is intended to provide a system whereby there is such a culture that the situation previously faced by victims no longer happens but that, if it does—and I very much hope that it does not—there is proper redress for people. So I agree with that. I certainly agree that the proposals are to get on with it this week. The date that has been agreed for the Privy Council to meet to seal the cross-party charter is 30 October.

My Lords, the House will not be surprised that the Privy Council has rejected the PressBoF charter simply because it is not supported by all the industry or compliant with Leveson’s requirements. However, is the Minister aware that that caused a further delay? Why was it given preference over Parliament’s agreed charter? That delay was seven months and there is now another month’s delay. Is he aware that the way in which the press have beaten all six recommendations of the inquiry is simply by building in delay after delay after delay. If there are to be further consultations, we will be getting near to the general election when all leaders get pressed by the press and will decide that they have no time or political courage to implement the recommendations. Will he confirm that the Privy Council, at the end of the meeting on 30 October after Parliament has decided what these changes might be, has the possibility of rejecting it? If so, should there not be better representation on the Privy Council other than Tory Cabinet Ministers?

I think that I have already explained to your Lordships why there is a week when further work could be undertaken. As I have said, the right honourable Member for Peckham is very much part of those discussions. I hope that noble Lords opposite will be reassured that this is an honest venture to see if there are ways in which the points that the committee made can be incorporated. If not, the 18 March charter will remain.

The noble Lord used the word “beaten”. I want to reassure him that we have reached the point where, on Friday, the cross-party charter will be available to parliamentarians, the public and the press. The Privy Council will meet and the intention is to seal the cross-party charter on that date.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify for me—I am chairman of a regional newspaper company—whether the new charter, if I may call it that, will be discussed by Parliament between the time it is placed in the Libraries and the time that the Privy Council decides to adopt it?

My Lords, my understanding is that these are, as I say, points to do with the arbitration system, which are matters of detail. The intention is not to reopen this because all that will do is produce the situation that noble Lords have quite rightly berated me about. This takes us into avenues of reopening matters and, in a way, your Lordships and the nation feel that we have reached a point now where we have to resolve the matter.

My Lords, I would like to narrow my comments today to one particular organisation. All parties successfully applied pressure on News International, which resulted in the resignation of editors and the removal of the News of the World from circulation. I do not wish to dwell on the attack by the Daily Mail on the Leader of the Opposition in the other place or to compare it to the phone hacking incidents of the past, but the attack is the final straw. The tyrant Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, has gone too far this time.

It is about time that all parties again join together and demand of the shareholders and the owners of the Daily Mail the removal of this nasty man. He is not a fit and proper person to be an editor of a national newspaper. The culture that he has created at the Daily Mail has attracted the nastiest bunch of vindictive, arrogant and some would say racist people who call themselves journalists. Over the years, the Daily Mail has harassed members of all parties unfairly and it is about time Parliament showed some unity and flexed its muscles to deal with these nasty people once and for all.

We have to stand up to these bullies. Too many people have held back in the past. Anyone who dares to criticise the Daily Mail will be paid back by being attacked even more. There is no fair system of redress when it comes to them.

Noble Lords: Question!

I will give you a question shortly.

My question is in urging the Minister seriously to see what he can do to put pressure on the directors and owners of the Daily Mail. Dacre's refusal to apologise for what he did last week can be likened to the Kelvin MacKenzie/Hillsborough headline, which is something that he will be remembered for. I hope that last week's event will be something that Dacre is remembered for. Last week's events and the actions of the Daily Mail are further evidence that newspapers cannot be trusted to regulate themselves.

My Lords, the first thing to say is that we are having a royal charter precisely because state regulation is not an option that the country or indeed parliamentarians generally wish to travel towards. As the noble Lord has raised the point about the Daily Mail, I think that honest exchanges and robust differences of view are all legitimate, but I have always thought that they should be done in a civil manner. I do not think that what happened with the Leader of the Opposition and the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday was civil.

My Lords, has legal advice been taken about the statutory underpinning of the charter? My recollection is that it says that the charter cannot be changed without a two-thirds majority in Parliament. In the very first lesson that law undergraduates ever have, one learns that one Parliament cannot bind another. No amount of saying that there needs to be a two-thirds majority can stand up if a future Parliament simply decides to change it. Has advice been taken on that?

Secondly, because everything seems to be going one way, is there a note of balance in this? It is, after all, our press that uncovered the so-called MPs’ expenses scandal. Our press investigated ill-doing in hospitals and old-age homes for the benefit of those in them even though some may say that they were being victimised by being uncovered. Our press uncovered the thalidomide scandal, perhaps the root of all our acknowledgement of investigative journalism in the past 30 years or so.

Some are fearful that investigative journalism of a very robust nature may become overshadowed if this is not fully taken account of in the royal charter, which one hopes is a cross-party initiative and not one unduly influenced by lobbyists.

The first thing to say to the noble Baroness is that yes this is a cross-party charter—very much so. There have been robust exchanges with party leaders and parliamentarians across the parties trying to seek some resolution. I absolutely do not think that the whole process is seeking to stop the press in its legitimate task of holding us to account, holding institutions to account and ensuring that wrongdoing is exposed. That is the very essence of why we should champion a free press. But what has happened and why we are here is that elements of the press have been hugely irresponsible and worse.

One of the essences of the Leveson report was that the new regime, which is much needed, will be voluntary as well as statutorily underpinned. What comfort can my noble friend give the House that, whatever charter emerges at the end of this important process, the Government are confident that the newspapers will voluntarily sign up to it?

My noble friend makes an important point. Clearly, we need to have a regime in which the newspaper industry, even if reluctantly, concludes in the end that this is the wish of Parliament and, as I said before, the wish of the nation. I encourage the newspaper industry to see this as a reasonable settlement that protects freedom of the press but ensures that decent people have the proper redress that they deserve.

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s commitment to look particularly at access to arbitration. Are the Government listening to the concerns of the regional press, which is particularly exercised because none of the problems that we have been talking about over the past couple of years derives from its work? Indeed, the regional press is the one part of the press that has followed the spirit as well as the processes of the regulation process, but now it is to be involved in a very expensive regulatory procedure. It is very worried about free access to arbitration, which could undermine the existing processes for settlement and, when the regional press is already in severe financial difficulty, could draw it into an additional cost burden.

My Lords, I admit that I have not had very long to read the letter to the Clerk of the Privy Council from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Secretary of State, but the last page specifically mentions what my noble friend has raised. That is why, over the next few days, this important concern about arbitration, particularly for local and regional newspapers, is a reasonable one. I think the point my noble friend has made is precisely why we are spending these final days looking to see if there are ways in which the representatives of the three political parties can come to an agreed view. That will pick up the point which has been made by my noble friend.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain precisely what has been arranged in respect of the First Minister in Scotland? He has talked about the leaders of the three political parties, but given the First Minister’s capacity for mischief, it is obviously very important that he is on board.

One of the reasons that we took some time to ensure that the cross-party charter is absolutely correct was in order to have discussions with the Government in Scotland and to ensure that there is scope for the charter to include the press in Scotland. There have been clear discussions, and that is why the cross-party charter will include an ability for the Scottish press to be part of the arrangements.

My Lords, we have just had another reference to Scotland. In order to ensure the balance that we all seek, is the Minister aware that the legislative framework is now diversifying within the United Kingdom following the passage of the Defamation Bill here because it has been blocked in Northern Ireland so far? There could be wide variations in the legislative framework around the United Kingdom, so that certain areas could in fact become litigation hubs. That would be most regrettable.

My Lords, I hope very much that that is not the case because what we are seeking to do is ensure that there is a situation whereby the press adheres, through the recognition body and its own self-regulatory body, to standards that we all think should be correct. I hope that we do not get into the situation referred to by the noble Lord.

There is a set time of 20 minutes for questions following a Statement. However, the noble Lord is right to say that the next business will not start until 7.07 pm, and so I beg to move the House do now adjourn during pleasure.

Sitting suspended.