HC Deb 05 December 1963 vol 685 cc1355-8
Q1. Mr. W. Hamilton

asked the Prime Minister if he has studied the resolution sent to him by the National Union of Journalists regarding the need for legislation to establish a Press Amalgamations Court on the lines proposed by the Shawcross Commission on the Press; and what reply he has sent.

Q6. Mr. Hoy

asked the Prime Minister if it is his intention to appoint a Press Amalgamations Court, as recommended by the Shawcross Report.

Q9. Mr. Mayhew

asked the Prime Minister what reply he has given to the resolution sent to him by the National Union of Journalists urging the establishment of a Press Amalgamations Court.

Q12. Mr. Frank Allaun

asked the Prime Minister what was his reply to the letter from the National Union of Journalists expressing concern about the effect of further newspaper closures on access to news and opinion and proposing the introduction of legislation to establish a special court to deal with future amalgamations of prospering newspaper concerns.

The Prime Minister (Sir Alec Douglas-Home)

I would refer hon. Members to the reply which I gave to the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich (Mr. D. Foot) on 3rd December.

Mr. Hamilton

That reply was extremely disappointing. Since the Shawcross Commission reported more than a year ago and the Government have had time to consider all the implications of its recommendations, and in view of the growing public concern at the increased concentration of power and control in the Press, will the Prime Minister take urgent steps to implement some of the recommendations of the Shawcross Commission to ensure that public opinion will be free and various and that the interests of the public override the interests of any group of shareholders?

The Prime Minister

These Questions relate to the establishment of a court. The difficulty is that the steps which lead to a merger are very often economic, and it is hard to see how a court could reverse the economic conditions which make a merger necessary.

Mr. Hoy

Is not the Prime Minister aware that the economic repercussions have an effect on journalists and printers in the industry, depriving them of their livelihood and producing a form of direction which we find intolerable? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the continuing concentration of newspapers into fewer and fewer hands creates difficulties which may be much more difficult to overcome in the future if they are allowed to continue?

The Prime Minister

I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentlemen who have asked these Questions. I fully understand the difficulties. The trouble is that I have not yet been able to find an answer which is really satisfactory. The object is to save newspapers. The trouble is that, too often, it is a choice between merger and death, and I do not see how a court would stop this.

Mr. Mayhew

May we take it, then, that the Prime Minister agrees that the present organisation of the Press concentrates too much power in the hands of too few people? Why have the Government refused to give time for the Report of this important Commission to be debated in the House?

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, I think that I should have to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman. I do not know exactly what occasions there have been in the recent past for debate on this matter. I did not say that power was contained in too few hands in the newspaper world, but I think that all of us want to preserve independent newspapers if it is possible to do so.

Mr. Allaun

I agree with the Prime Minister—[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]—not for long—that it may be difficult to maintain a newspaper indefinitely at a loss, but is it not true that the recent Thomson-Drayton barter deal involved two highly prosperous newspaper combines, and does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the newspaper industry is different from other industries in that what happens within it affects the working of democracy itself and is not confined merely to the effect on the proprietors?

The Prime Minister

The first part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question was very agreeable to me. With the second part, again, I have a good deal of sympathy, but it is not easy to see how a court of this nature could prevent newspapers closing down, and who would pay the losses. The hon. Gentleman says that the losses could not run for very long, but, even if they ran for a short time, there would still be the question who would pay—the taxpayer?

Mr. Driberg

Why does the right hon. Gentleman put a false alternative to the House, saying that the choice is between merger and death? Does not he realise that merger is death to one of the newspapers concerned? When the News Chronicle merged with the Daily Mail, did not the News Chronicle die?

The Prime Minister

I gather that the News Chronicle would have died completely if there had been no merger. At least a part of it was merged.

Sir J. Eden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there can be no independence in newspapers or, for that matter, in any other form of commercial undertaking unless there is profitability, and does he agree, also, that a merger which makes possible continuity of employment is much more to be welcomed than the complete writing off of a British newspaper?

The Prime Minister

I think that newspapers must be subject to the economic laws.