HC Deb 20 December 1966 vol 738 cc1254-7
Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law of contempt in respect of the Press and broadcasting. My modest Bill is designed to amend and clarify the law of contempt as it affects Press and broadcasting authorities. The Press is at present suffering from many ills and sicknesses. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House referred to this matter earlier. Most of the difficulties that face the Press are, however, of too complex and deep-rooted a nature to be remedied by a simple Act of Parliament.

What my Bill would attempt to do would be to remove one of the recurring sources of irritation and anxiety from the day-to-day life of the editor and working journalist. This is an anxiety caused by the fear that he may print or broadcast something that he may genuinely feel is a matter of public concern and which may well be a matter of genuine public concern, but which may none the less cause him to be prosecuted for contempt of court and suffer severe financial and other penalties as a result.

The Bill would seek to do this not by abolishing the law of contempt, for I believe that a good law of contempt is very necessary in this country, but by attempting to define it more accurately so that journalists can know with a reasonable degree of precision what they may or may not publish. At present, I can think of very few laws which carry such severe penalties but which are so vague and ill-defined.

What is the standard definition of "contempt?" The definition which is usually relied upon is something in the following terms: any conduct that tends to bring the authority and administration of the law into disrespect or disregard, or to interfere with or prejudice parties, litigants, or their witnesses during the litigation. To dissect this definition, it is clear that it involves two elements. The first is contempt in the face of the court. My Bill would not attempt to alter that in any respect. The second is contempt outside the court, which, again, brings in two categories: first, general comments in the Press and, secondly, the interviewing of witnesses and potential witnesses.

I will deal, first, with comment. Clearly, it is highly appropriate that there should be a severe limitation on comments where jury actions are concerned. It is clear that juries can be very easily influenced, and influenced adversely, by what they might read in a paper or see on television. But it is open to question whether it is right or necessary, or indeed in the interests of justice, that there should be such a strict rule about comments with regard to judges sitting alone and certainly whether there should be any limitation on comment at all with regard to tribunals of inquiry set up under the 1921 Act.

I do not dispute that contempt does apply in cases of tribunals of inquiry established under the 1921 Act. I am happy to say that because, judging by some of the less responsible comments, it might be thought that contempt of court was the invention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, egged on by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. This is not so. None the less, it is appropriate to dispute whether it is right that there should be this limitation on comment with regard to tribunals of inquiry.

My reasons for saying this are as follows. First, the result of a trial is a verdict or judgment. Clearly, if a verdict or a judgment is wrong serious injustices can result. However, the result of an inquiry is a report to Parliament and Parliament has the right to debate and comment upon that report. A trial generally means trial by jury, but an inquiry under the 1921 Act is usually held by highly-qualified men who are most unlikely to be influenced by anything they read in the newspapers or see on television. A trial is conducted upon evidence confined by certain set rules of procedure, but an inquiry is competent to hear any evidence which is called in front of it, including any evidence about why or why not a particular comment was printed in a newspaper.

What is perhaps most important is that a trial is held by permanent members of a judiciary, whereas an inquiry is conducted by persons who are appointed ad hoc. In the hands of a less scrupulous Government than this one, it could be an immense advantage to nominate a safe and sound tribunal which will come to exactly the right determination. This being so, it is right and in the public interest that newspapers should have the right to comment on such appointments.

I will deal briefly with the interviewing of witnesses. There is a considerable danger that witnesses can be interfered with if they are interviewed. I need do no more than refer to the Moors case, in which there was considerable public concern, and where a newspaper attempted to buy up a potential witness. It is only right to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General acted with great liberality and tact in that case.

The 1921 Act itself does not give power to a tribunal to commit for contempt. All it can do is to certify to the High Court that an offence has been committed, and the High Court can then deliberate and determine upon it. This is a very clumsy method of deciding contempt committed outside the face of the courts, for it is obvious that the High Court itself may come to a different decision about the contempt from that of the tribunal.

In all these circumstances, what I ask for is not a licence for the Press, but that the Press and the broadcasting authorities should be able to carry out their duties of exposing, criticising and probing more efficiently, and my proposed Bill would enable them to do that without in any way justice suffering.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Arthur Davidson, Mr. Harold Lever, Mr. Jasper More, Dr. Winstanley, Mr. John Fraser, Mr. Walter Clegg, Mr. Alexander Lyon, Mr. Fletcher-Cooke, Mr. Peter Jackson. Mr. Mark Carlisle, and Mr. Edward Lyons.