HC Deb 11 April 1974 vol 872 cc631-4
Q3. Mr. Molloy

asked the Prime Minister if he will now appoint a commission of inquiry into the Press.

Q10. Mr. loan Evans

asked the Prime Minister what further consideration has been given to the proposal to set up a Royal Commission to investigate the ownership of the newspaper industry: and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister

I would refer my hon. Friends to the reply which I gave on 9th April to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor).

Mr. Molloy

Does the Prime Minister agree that a free and unfettered Press is vital to the establishment and maintenance of our free society, that the Press has played an important part in the past, and that the loss of any newspaper, national or local, is a threat to the great rôle that the Press has played? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that an inquiry in which journalists participated would assist in solving the economic problems of the industry, and that such an inquiry might also consider some of the lapses from grace of the British Press?

The Prime Minister

I agree with the opening words of my hon. Friend's supplementary question. When this matter was last raised orally in the House three or four weeks ago, I replied in terms of the freedom of the Press and quoted the anxieties of Aims of Industry, on the one hand, and, on the other, of the print unions, and the big body of opinion in between. I have always thought that the freedom of the Press meant the freedom to choose between individual newspapers and the availability of an adequate choice so that that can be done.

Sir David Renton

Will the Prime Minister consult the Law Officers with a view to considering whether legislation should be introduced to ensure that before a writ for libel is issued the matter is brought before a High Court judge, so that he may be persuaded that a prima facie case of defamation is established before giving leave for the writ to be issued?

The Prime Minister

That is an entirely different question from the one on the Order Paper.

Mr. Evans

Does my right hon. Friend realise the deep anxiety that exists about the continued concentration of the ownership of the Press in fewer and fewer hands? Does he agree that newspaper ownership is allied with the Conservative Party and that alleged indiscretions by members of the Labour Party are looked at through a microscope, whereas indiscretions by members of the Tory Party are looked at through the wrong end of a telescope?

The Prime Minister

The question of the freedom of the Press raises much wider issues, not only of ownership but of allegations and actions by other groups to prevent the publication of particular matters. At the present time I should have thought that most people who are connected with the Press—not to mention the readers—are anxious above all about the economic situation, the costs and the prospects of survival of individual newspapers, the loss of which would restrict the freedom of choice to which I referred.

Mr. Pardoe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is 12 years since the Royal Commission found that national newspaper production was gravely inefficient and recommended accordingly? Is not the newspaper industry, even today, the most inefficient, the most wasteful and the least well managed industry in the country? Is it not time, not for a new inquiry but for the recommendations of that Royal Commission to be implemented?

The Prime Minister

There was not only the Royal Commission ; as the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition reminded the House three or four weeks ago, there was the authoritative independent inquiry by the Economist Intelligence Unit, which was blistering on certain aspects of management and attitudes on both sides of the industry. Some attempt has been made to deal with this, but one reason for anxiety today about newspapers that have recently closed down is not only industrial relations but sheer bad management and inflated costs.

Mr. Gorst

Even if the Prime Minister will not go along with an inquiry into the mechanics of the Press, will he refrain from closing his mind to the possibility of an inquiry into the functioning of the Press Council? When the Prime Minister made criticisms of the conduct of the Press in his statement to the House a few days ago, I was struck by the fact that neither he nor anyone else had referred this matter to the Press Council. Does not that tend to give the impression that he does not himself believe that the Press Council is functioning adequately?

The Prime Minister

Everyone has his own views about the adequacy of the Press Council and its relative success in dealing with some kinds of question and not with others. This would be a matter that a Royal Commission would look into, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this point.

There are many other matters to which hon. Members and people connected with the newspaper industry attach importance. I have seen representations and submissions from several groups, institutes, and so on, and if any hon. Member has any suggestions to make before we proceed further in the matter I shall be pleased to receive them.