HC Deb 02 May 1974 vol 872 cc1322-32

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

Q9. Mr. Moonman

to ask the Prime Minister if he is now in a position to say whether there will be a Royal Commission on the Press to include an examination of the national and regional structure of the industry and the manning and management of national newspapers.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With Mr. Speaker's permission, I will now answer Question No. 9.

As the House will recall, when I first answered Questions after the Opening of Parliament on 21st March I was asked whether I would recommend the setting up of a Royal Commission on the Press. I replied that this proposal was under urgent consideration.

On that occasion and later the House expressed its anxiety about the closure of the Scottish Daily Express, with the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs, and this was the subject of further Questions in the context of suggestions for setting up a Royal Commission.

Following that and other Questions about an inquiry into the Press, I have decided to recommend to the Queen the appointment of a Royal Commission on the Press. The Queen has approved this recommendation.

The terms of reference of the Royal Commission will be as follows:

To inquire into the factors affecting the maintenance of the independence, diversity and editorial standards of newspapers and periodicals, and the public's freedom of choice of newspapers and periodicals, nationally, regionally and locally, with particular reference to:

  1. (a) the economics of newspaper and periodical publishing and distribution;
  2. (b) the interaction of the newspaper and periodical interests held by the companies concerned with their other interests and holdings, within and outside the communications industry;
  3. (c) management and labour practices and relations in the newspaper and periodical industry;
  4. (d) conditions and security of employment in the newspaper and periodical industry;
  5. (e) the distribution and concentration of ownership of the newspaper and periodical industry, and the adequacy of existing law in relation thereto;
  6. (f) the responsibilities, constitution and functioning of the Press Council;
and to make recommendations.

The Royal Commission will have all the usual powers. It will be free to submit interim reports or recommendations, if it considers that there are matters within its terms of reference which ought to be dealt with urgently, before its final report is available.

I am glad to he able to tell the House that Mr. Justice Finer has agreed to serve as Chairman of the Royal Commission. The rest of the membership will be announced in due course.

Mr. Heath

The Prime Minister will recognise that there has been no discus- sion in advance about the terms of reference and, therefore, that the first that we have heard of them has been what he has just announced. Therefore, we on this side of the House would like to give careful consideration to the terms of reference of the Royal Commission. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will agree to consider any representations made to him about the terms of reference before the Royal Commission is set up.

There is one further matter of deeper significance which I addressed to the right hon. Gentleman when he first raised the matter earlier in the Session. What is the real purpose of a Royal Commission at this time on these matters? There have been very deep investigations into the problems of the Press—two important ones over the past few years—which have analysed the situation very clearly and set forth recommendations as to how they should be handled. Moreover, all those concerned with the Press know what the problems are. What is required is action very largely within the industry itself to put its own house in order so as to deal with those problems. Furthermore, is not it the case that, with an agenda such as the right hon. Gentleman has announced, by the time this Royal Commission has finished taking evidence, has made its recommendations and the report is published the problems of which we are all aware in some sections of the Press will have become acute to the point where some sections of the Press may well have disappeared altogether? Is it not urgent to take steps to enable the Press to deal with its problems quite irrespective of whether a Royal Commission is set up?

The Prime Minister

I agree with a lot of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, and I am perfectly prepared to give the assurance for which he asks about terms of reference. The procedure followed here is that which occurred when the right hon. Gentleman recommended the appointment of Royal Commissions. I have in mind, for example, the one on injuries and damages. We had no previous intimation about it. However, on considering these terms of reference, if the right hon. Gentleman has any points or suggestions to make we shall be only too ready to consider them.

I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that there have been inquiries over the past few years, though the last one occurred seven years ago and was, in fact, commissioned from the Economist Intelligence Unit. It did not carry the authority, nor did it have the width of terms of reference, that the Royal Commission which I have announced today will have. Many facts about the problems of the newspaper industry, especially on the economic side, have been widely discussed. The right hon. Gentleman, the whole House, and I know the facts. The tragedy is that there is no agreement within the industry on what the facts are. There has been no agreement, despite the Economist Intelligence Unit report, despite what I think the right hon. Gentleman said at the time, and despite what I said in very strong terms about the need for improving labour practices and many other things. Therefore, I think it right that there should be a Royal Commission at this time.

Mr. Moonman

I am sure that there will be a warm welcome for the Prime Minister's proposal. I have two questions. The first relates to the terms of reference of the Royal Commission. The Shawcross Royal Commission made hardly any reference to the provincial Press and magazines. To some extent what the Prime Minister said has taken account of that, but does he agree that the commission should have a wider remit?

Secondly, there is the problem of time. At least one national paper and a London evening newspaper are in serious financial difficulties. I hope that my right hon. Friend will go further than merely inviting the Royal Commission to produce an interim report and will insist that it makes a statement by 1st September.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that I have already replied to his first question. When he studies the words that I have used he will see that I referred to the public's freedom of choice of newspapers and periodicals, nationally, regionally and locally". Throughout the terms of reference reflect that concept.

I also agree—the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition made the same point—about the grave urgency and dangers of a further restriction on the newspaper reading public's choice in the matter of possible closures. Indeed, since the first Question was put down to me two months ago on this matter one newspaper has folded and others are threatened. I think that raises a question of urgency. The Royal Commission is free to report urgently. However, the setting up of a Royal Commission does not mean any more than it has meant in the past—that the Government do not have responsibility where there is a threat either to employment or to the freedom of the newspaper reading public to have as wide a choice as possible of what they can read.

Mr. Grimond

As usual, I declare my interest in this matter. Is it too late to ask the Prime Minister to think again about this method of dealing with the real problems of the Press? I agree with those who have already said that this Royal Commission will presumably go on for years. Its remit is extremely wide. It is to examine newspapers and periodicals. What reason has he to suppose that at the end of the day another Royal Commission will get any action? Did he not say that the facts are there but action has not been taken upon them? It is action that is needed. Can the right hon. Gentleman reassure the House that some action will be taken after yet another inquiry? Will he also tell us what relationship this inquiry will have to the inquiry into broadcasting?

The Prime Minister

The question of action is for those in the industry. The right hon. Gentleman, as always, has declared his interest. Perhaps it was for him and others within the industry to have taken the action that has not been taken. As I said, I do not believe that the establishment of a Royal Commission, which is urgent, need in any way inhibit actions which should be taken within the industry and any actions which may be appropriate on the part of the Government. It is a fact that there is deep concern about the condition of the Press. While I do not always agree with every dot and decimal point of public opinion polls—they have not always been proved right, as two right hon. Gentlemen, of whom I am one, have reason to know—The Times survey this week, allowing for the usual margin of error, showed an appalling lack of confidence in the national Press on the part of the British people. I believe that there are long-term as well as the more urgent problems. That is why there is to be a Royal Commission.

The inquiry into broadcasting is a separate inquiry with sufficiently wide terms of reference when it gets under way. The only link between the two inquiries is the question of newspaper holdings within and outside the communications industry, which will be within the terms of reference of the Royal Commission. That will obviously include holdings by the newspaper industry within commercial broadcasting.

Mr. Edelman

Will the Prime Minister define a little more closely the reference in the Royal Commission's terms to "editorial standards"? Will he make it clear that the commission, while protecting the legitimate privacy of individuals, will not do anything to limit or restrict the investigative duties and rights of the Press generally?

The Prime Minister

It is not for me to spell out the terms of reference. It is for the Royal Commission, under its distinguished chairmanship, to interpret these phrases. I am sure that the House has confidence that this will be done with the greatest possible responsibility.

The question of privacy has been before the House on a number of occasions. A Bill was introduced in the last Parliament which failed to make progress late one Friday afternoon. The Government are considering the law of privacy in relation to the Younger Report, which was published a very long time ago, and how far the greater privacy of the individual, not only outside but within the sphere of newspapers and communication, can be safeguarded without interfering with the legitimate rights of the Press.

Mr. Nigel Lawson

Will the Prime Minister ensure that this Royal Commission is able to look into the serious matter that he raised in his speech on 20th July last year—namely, the practice of inhibiting free Press comment by the issue of writs with which the plaintiff has no intention of proceeding?

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who, like the diary column of the newspaper of which he was once a distinguished financial editor, got the quotation right. It was not right in another newspaper which tried to copy it yesterday. The key words were, has no intention of proceeding with. I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has in mind and with what I said on 20th July last year. I was thinking of a case where for 12 years no action was taken. I entirely agree that journalistic freedom should not be inhibited by the issue of writs with which the plaintiff has no intention of proceeding. I am not aware of any such writs current today.

Mr. Dalyell

As one who was sent by the then Secretary of State for Social Services the right hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) to see Mr. Morris Finer on the question of alimony, may I remind the Prime Minister that Mr. Justice Finer's last Committee has drooled on for four years and five months? Can we be certain that he will get adequate Civil Service help this time to make sure that this Royal Commission reports rather quicker than the Committee on one-parent families?

The Prime Minister

I am sure that on consideration my hon. Friend will feel that he has not been entirely fair to the distinguished judge, because most people who studied the report on one-parent families felt that a very thorough job was done on a problem which had caused misery and agony for millions of families. It is to the credit of the previous Government that that Royal Commission was set up. But, regarding newspapers, I have already indicated the need for urgency in certain directions. It is for Mr. Justice Finer and his Royal Commission to report urgently on any particular case or, as I said, for the Government or those within the industry to act in the face of any prospective crisis.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Does the Prime Minister agree that even the Press sometimes gets things right? Will he include in that the recent reporting of the use of Government information services for a personal statement? Will he also take this opportunity of putting right the erroneous statement that he made in the House on Tuesday and perhaps for once admit that he was wrong?

The Prime Minister

Of course the Press frequently gets facts right, but, unfortunately, not when it is asked to print a statement by the hon. Gentleman. I replied to this point last night. In view of the interest stirred up in the Press by the hon. Gentleman I felt that I should hand a copy to the Press. What I said in my reply to the hon. Gentleman on this matter was correct. In all his interventions this week he has only succeeded in demonstrating to the House the fundamental depths of his shallowness.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Does my right hon. Friend realise that, whichever way this matter is received in Fleet Street tomorrow, his decision to set up a Royal Commission will be welcomed in the country? My right hon. Friend has already referred to the fact that it was my Question in the first week of Parliament that drew attention to the need for a Royal Commission. There is deep anxiety about the concentration of Press ownership in this country. What Lord Thomson said a few years ago about ending up with two national newspapers is fast approaching. Will my right hon. Friend therefore ensure that in the proposed membership of the Royal Commission consideration will be given to having a representative from the National Union of Journalists or a working journalist?

The Prime Minister

On the last point. I am sure that when we have been able to decide on recommendations for appointment there will be a completely representative group of people on it, including those who have had long experience in an editorial or journalistic capacity.

The anxieties that have been expressed about concentration are widely felt, mainly, as I have said—and not least after the Scottish experience—about the restriction of reading choice.

My hon. Friend began by using the phrase "whatever the response in Fleet Street". I have the impression—though I may be wrong about this, and if I am the matter will no doubt be taken up—that there is a fairly general welcome in Fleet Street for the setting up of a general inquiry.

Mr. Wyn Roberts

Following the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Edelman) about editorial standards, may I ask whether it is not, nevertheless, a fact that newspapers, from The Times to Private Eye, will be asked to justify their mode of conducting themselves and their inquiries? Is the Prime Minister not aware that that is likely to be interpreted as an attempt to gag the Press?

The Prime Minister

Only by the hon. Gentleman and others vociferously defending their marginal seats—but not for very much longer.

I have said that the Royal Commission, which will be composed of commissioners of distinction who will ultimately be announced, will have the duty of interpreting this phrase. I shall be most surprised if those members were going to sit as a court of judgment on individual Press stories. For one thing, it would be a full-time job. I am sure that the commissioners will be concerned only with the principles set out in the terms of reference that they have been given.

Mr. Heath

Before we leave the statement, may I put two further points to the Prime Minister? The first relates to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas). Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he told the House last week that the Lord President's statement did not involve the work of the Civil Service, whereas it is quite clear that it did? I am not arguing whether that is right or wrong, or asking the Prime Minister for a judgment. I am suggesting that, as it is plain that what happened is contrary to what he said, it would be right to tell the House frankly that civil servants were involved in that statement by the Lord President. The House is always sympathetic to a Minister who says frankly that he was not aware of the facts and now corrects his statement.

Secondly, I should like to make it clear that when I said we should want to consider the terms of reference of the Royal Commission I was referring to the maintenance of the independence of the Press. That is what concerns us. It has been emphasised in the House recently that no one should be beholden to any body or organisation. That means, above all, that the Press should not be beholden to any Government through their arrangements, subsidies, supplies of newsprint or anything else of that kind. This is a basic aspect of the independence of the Press.

The Prime Minister

I agree with the last point made by the right hon. Gentleman, and the very first words of the terms of reference are To inquire into the factors affecting the maintenance of the independence, diversity and editorial standards of newspapers and periodicals". I agree that that is of great importance, and it will be a matter for consideration how far the Press is independent today and what threats there are to this independence from various sources, including those mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. I said that we shall be glad to have any views which the right hon. Gentleman may wish to express when he has studied the terms of reference.

Dealing with my answer to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), I should withdraw what I said if I felt that what I had said was wrong. I have taken that action on a number of occasions, from both sides of the House, but the question was put in the context of the Cabinet Office, and I answered that in my letter.

The point that I was trying to make clear to the hon. Gentleman—I thought that this was what he was after from his question, though it may not have been 100 per cent. well drafted any more than my answer was. [Interruption.] This was an exchange across the Floor of the House. I answered what I thought the hon. Gentleman had in mind. I thought that he might have had in mind that the Civil Service had been used in drafting the statement.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Issuing a statement.

The Prime Minister

That was not the case, because my right hon. Friend saw me on his arrival in London on Monday and showed me the first draft of his statement which he had written on the train. The statement was in manuscript, and he discussed it with me. There was no question of the use of the Civil Service in drafting that statement.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the issue of the statement, and I have already explained this in my letter to him. Unfortunately, journalists were upstairs until a late hour, in the uncomfortable conditions which we know they occupy. My right hon. Friend could have taken the statement and handed it to the journalists, which he would have been glad to do even at one o'clock in the morning, but he did not do that. Instead, he used a Press officer, not of the Cabinet Office, for that purpose.

If there is any reason for criticism, perhaps I may tell the House that I have a copy of a statement made in not dissimilar circumstances by a Minister of the Conservative Party which was issued by his Department on his behalf on a purely political matter.

Mr. Speaker

I call the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) to ask about the business for next week.

Mr. Heath


Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether I may seek your guidance in trying to unravel a matter whereby the procedure seems to have got into a tangle.

Mr. Speaker

This is not the appropriate moment for that. We must deal first with the business question.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

May I ask when it will be convenient to raise the matter?

Mr. Speaker

I shall tell the hon. Baronet.