HC Deb 10 May 1968 vol 764 cc819-26

Order for Second Reading read.

1.57 p.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is based on a Report over which a great deal of trouble was taken. I hope that the House will forgive me if I briefly give the background in order that the Bill's purposes may be intelligible.

Both the present Government and the previous Conservative Government found themselves in serious trouble with the Press at different times. The Bill is in no sense controversial. As a Conservative backbencher I thought it very unfortunate that the Conservative Government of 1962 should have become so much at cross-purposes with the Press in the case that obtained notoriety under the name of the Vassall case. It may be that many hon. Members opposite have had the same feeling about the more recent case in which their Govern- ment was involved in connection with D notices.

The Bill has its origin as a remoter consequence of the Vassall case. Feeling among journalists as to what happened in that case were very strongly aroused, so much so that it seemed right to a number of people concerned with the Press and the present state of the law that the whole question of the law of the Press in this country should be gone into. The initiative was taken by a society called "Justice", the British section of the International Commission of Jurists. The chairman of its council is the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross, and its vice-chairmen are my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) and the noble Lord, Lord Tangley. I need hardly say that it is a completely non-political body. Members of Parliament from all parties in the House are represented on it.

The working party which considered the matter was made up partly of representatives of "Justice" and partly of representatives of the Press, actually coming from the British Committee of the International Press Institute. The chairman of the working party was Lord Shawcross.

The working party decided at a fairly early moment in its investigations that, whatever might be the feelings of journalists arising out of what happened in the Vassall case, it did not think that the law had in any way been unjustly used against the journalists. Nor did it think that on the specific matter at issue—the revelation of disclosures—amendment of the law was called for. But the more it examined the state of the law as it affected the Press the more it thought that an investigation was called for.

Therefore, it went to considerable trouble to look at the present state of the law in connection with the Press under three heads which are reproduced in my Bill: first, contempt of court; secondly, official secrets, and, thirdly, libel and slander. It made a considerable number of recommendations under each of those heads, and the Bill is founded directly on those recommendations.

The Bill does not go the full length of the recommendations, nor does it include some which were particularly controversial. I have done this deliberately because I feel that it is in the interests of the House and, I hope, of all parties in it that some initiative in this field should be taken by the Legislature. While the Bill may be only a beginning, I believe it is important that there should be a beginning, and I also believe that it should not be defeated merely because one attempts to go too far in front of public opinion.

We have not had what might be called a full-dress discussion in this House on this broad topic, but in another place there was a debate specifically on this Report. It is now a printed Report, and I recommend it to the attention of hon. Members who may be interested in the subject. It is entitled, "The Law and the Press". I also recommend to hon. Members the OFFICIAL REPORT of that debate dated 25th May, 1966. I pay tribute to Lord Tangley, who initiated the debate in another place and has at all stages taken a great deal of trouble to bring the issues before Parliament and public opinion.

As I have mentioned one name I think it incumbent upon me to mention some other names. It is unfortunate that on a day like this I should have to mention what may be called an emotive name, but I do not think that I can discuss the matter without mentioning Mr. Cecil King, who for many years has been campaigning on this front, not from any political or controversial aspect, but merely because he is genuinely of the view that the present state of the law is having a harmful effect on the Press in the sense of being unduly restrictive of what can be reported. Mr. King has delivered a number of addresses, many of which are now printed, and I recommend those to the study of any persons who are interested in this subject.

There are other persons who have taken a leading part in this matter. I would mention this year's President of the Institute of Editors, Mr. Clement Jones, who has taken a personal interest. I think that it is necessary, in particular, to mention the name of Lord Devlin, to whom the Press is probably far more indebted in this field than to any other person. Lord Devlin is now Chairman of the Press Council. I think that everybody who has studied the subject would agree that the Press Council has done invaluable work for the journalists' profession, and Lord Devlin has taken an extremely personal interest in the matter and made a remarkable contribution. I believe that he has transformed the general atmosphere and relations and the feeling of those who work in the journalists' profession.

Finally, I pay tribute to Lord Shawcross, who has been a most doughty campaigner in this cause. Later in my speech I shall wish to quote from him. I ought also to pay tribute to the actual members of the working party, who did all the work on which the Bill was originally based.

The people of this country are said to be—I believe it is true—the greatest newspaper readers, or, at any rate, buyers, of any country in the world. Yet one gets the constant feeling that one of the most ingrained national habits of our citizens is to blame the Press on every possible occasion. Whenever one talks to people about the Press one constantly hears, "Is it not awful what things they put in the papers nowadays?" One notices that sometimes that expression is uttered after the avid reading of a number of pages devoted to sex, crime or graft. Often when that remark is made it is followed by "What are things coming to? What will they do next?" I do not think that the implication is right that the Press in this country is necessarily worse these days than it was in other days.

In the debate in another place the Earl of Dundee gave an interesting quotation showing what the Press of this country was like in other times. This is a quotation from The Times of 26th June, 1830 It is an obituary notice on the death of His Majesty King George IV. It was in these terms: The late King, before his 20th year, was supposed to have been initiated in all the vices by which an advanced and affluent and corrupt society is infested. He led a course of life the character of which rose little higher than that of animal indulgence. Not one but a series of licentious favourites are understood to have presided over the Royal Household of King George IV. I feel that that is probably as good as any of today's Press could achieve.

Surely what our people ought to be saying though they never do, is not "What awful things they put in the Press!" but, "What are the things which do not get in the Press?" People have got it wrong. The real complaint should be "Why do we not have more things reported in the Press?" Anybody who follows these things sees that they turn up almost every day in articles, speeches, and so on.

I quote a statement by the editor of the New Statesman in a recent article referring to the effect of the present libel law: As an editor, I am sometimes obliged to suppress what I believe to be the truth through fear of an action for libel. I may know that sufficient evidence to justify an assertion in court is obtainable—but to get it will entail a diversion of the resources of my paper out of all proportion to the importance of the story. Or, I may feel that a writ will follow in any case, and that the subsequent litigation will not only be expensive but immensely time-consuming for me and my staff. And even if we win we may not be able to recover our costs. Another article by Mr. Colin Frame, in the Evening News, was about the Official Secrets Act. He said: Mention it to me, and I now think of a colleague who was threatened with the Official Secrets Act this week. The colleague was a lady. He went on: She was reasonably, and in the public interest as a journalist, trying to find out what use the Ministry of Defence made of land at Kidbrooke which the Greater London Council want for a big housing scheme. That is a further example of the way in which the Press is inhibited from publishing matters of public interest.

This is a modest Bill and has the objective of making it easier for the Press to publish, without injury to private rights and without damage to national security, matters of private concern that are of interest to the public and matters of public concern whose publication would not imperil the security of the State.

I would not like it to be thought that the Bill is designed recklessly to throw open private secrets and matters of public security to a reckless, irresponsible Press. There are matters which must be preserved from being reported—for instance, matters of concern to us here, such as meetings of the 1922 Committee and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Parallel with legislation of the type that I am introducing today—and I ask the indulgence of the House because this is not in the Bill, but is essentially relevant—should be legislation to preserve the rights of privacy of individuals in strictly limited fields and from the increasingly threatened mechanical devices of the technological age. In another place, there was an attempt to introduce a Bill on those lines by Lord Mancroft in 1961. I have a suspicion that an attempt may be made in this House, possibly by the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) or by the Government. I would be the first to confess that this Bill does not go far enough. I would like to do much more.

We need a completely new Press code with penal provisions geared not to what the Press says but to what it omits. Heavy fines should be provided for failure by the Press to report in due time major matters of news value which, on investigation, could have been ferreted out by reporters. The same principle—put for—Ward in the discussion on Lord Mancroft's Bill—should be extended into the social sphere to apply to newspapers which report the hats and dresses of fashionable ladies at Ascot but fail to report the hat or dress of a particular lady. A social climber whose name is not included in guest lists at important parties should also be able to sue for damages—the damages to be measured by the importance of the party and by the distance which the unreported guest still has to climb. Obviously, the Press would need some protection. Members of this House, for instance, bringing an action because their speeches were not reported would have to prove positively that those speeches were newsworthy. But that is a detail.

I sometimes feel that the second half of this century will be called the "Age of the Hand-out". This is surely the most insidiously corrupting influence in the present development of the Press and in relations between the public and the Government. We all do it. We hand out those parts of our speeches which we want reported in our constituencies and elsewhere, and the practice makes life infinitely easier for the journalists. Not only we do it. Public bodies, including Government Departments, local authorities and trade unions and all sorts of other organisations, do it and always it is easier for the Press. What else is a White Paper but a hand-out? What else is a local council agenda, with its committee reports setting out all the things they have decided to do, but a handout? All this looks rather unsatisfactory in the light of the test that was applied to these things by that master of modern journalism, Lord Northcliffe, when he said: News is what people do not want you to print. All the rest is advertising. Only too often the real news is the news which people do not want printed. The parts of speeches which are not in the hand-outs are probably those which should be reported. The things which do not appear in White Papers or in local council agendas are often the things which ought to be investigated and published. On investigation, what may seem on the surface activity by these organisations might be found to be not so much activity but inertia.

While we have not debated in this House a Bill of this kind, we have debate recently the state of the Press in general. The House, particularly hon. Members opposite, has been understand- ably perturbed by the closures and amalgamations and the threat of monopoly which the Press is facing. But I do not think that anyone has managed to suggest a solution. However, I think there has been general agreement that the Press must remain independent and that the basis of that independence must be in-dependence of Government support or subsidy. That is to say, there must be the capacity of a newspaper to make a profit.

I quoted Lord Northcliffe earlier. His view was that most of what was in the news columns was apt to be advertising. But there is a converse proposition—that the most reliable news one sees in the newspapers is what one reads in the advertising pages. It was a significant and not very encouraging feature in a leading London newspaper about 10 days ago when another national newspaper took a large advertisement offering greatly reduced scales of charges for display advertising in its own pages. This is just the sort of thing we should take note of. It reflects the fact that the business of making profits which one used to take for granted as being so easy for the Press to make is getting harder.

If independence should go and the number of newspapers gets smaller, the reaction is felt immediately by all those—reporters, editors, managerial staff and printers—who live by the trade of journalism. What we face is the fact that newspapers sell by virtue of what they print. What I am saying by this Bill is that the right to print must, in the conditions the Press now faces, be pushed to the furthest limit consistent with the preservation of individual privacy and public security. That, fundamentally, is what Parts I and III of the Bill are about.

Part I concerns contempt of court and Part III the law of libel. The Clauses covering these are matters of detail reforming the present law, but the objective is not only to amend the present law. It is also to widen the rights of newspapers to report and print, thus making them more interesting, more attractive and, therefore, more likely to sell.

Before leaving this aspect I should say that it is probably true that the critical prospects I have mentioned are more relevant to the national Press than to the local Press. One of the few encouraging things in the situation is that, broadly speaking, as far as I know, the provincial Press is keeping its end up particularly well.

I may be particularly fortunate, because in my area I have an excellent local Press, six or eight local newspapers, all different and with their own styles, but all going from strength to strength. Although I must not mention names, I consider that one of them, in its coverage of local and national news and the spread and detail of its advertising, is as good as any in the country, if not any in the world. Moreover—

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members not being present, adjourned at twenty-four minutes past Two o'clock till Monday next.