§ Order for Second Reading read.9.35 am
§ Mr. Frank Allaun (Salford, East)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
In having the privilege of opening the debate. I wish to show the aims of the Bill, the need for it, what it proposes, why the existing safeguards are not good enough and, finally, the arguments against it.
I declare an interest. For many years before I came to the House I worked as a reporter on evening and daily national newspapers. I still retain my membership of the National Union of Journalists.
The Bill aims to give the ordinary man and woman some protection against powerful newspapers and radio and television programmes. The object is to protect individuals, companies and organisations against unfair, ill-founded and inaccurate reports. With the growth of vast press monopolies and the concentration of newspaper ownership in fewer and fewer hands, the dice are loaded against ordinary people. Five groups control 95 per cent. of all daily newspapers, and 96 per cent. of all Sunday newspapers. Within each group there is usually one man with the power to control.
Let us consider Rupert Murdoch. He owns The Sun, the News of the World, The Times, and the Sunday Times, and chains of newspapers in Australia, America and elsewhere. Like everyone else, Mr. Murdoch has only one vote, but he controls newspapers that influence the minds of millions every day of the week. One day's issue of The Sun may be bought by 4 million, and read by 12 million. A television programme may reach an even larger audience.
From my private public opinion poll, I gather that most media magnates do not like the Bill. However, most of the public do. I shall show that the aim is to extend democracy, not to restrict it. Genuine mistakes can be made in reporting and subbing, as I know from personal experience. Most editors of respectable newspapers would put them right as soon as the facts were made known, but there are villains, and the Bill is aimed at them.
I shall give two examples of misreporting that should have been put right or, better still, might never have occurred if the Bill were in operation. I know that the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) believes that an unfair and irresponsible item on a television programme has had a catastrophic effect on a building product and caused the liquidation of at least one company, with resultant unemployment.
Next, the Daily Express—I could go on for much longer than you would want, Mr. Deputy Speaker—made a harmful allegation that a mother and her children had jumped the council housing queue. It also said that the family had come over from Ireland to do so. Both allegations were false. She was not jumping the queue but was offered a house due for demolition and entirely unsuitable for the waiting list. She had lived for 25 of her 30 years of life in England and was born in Britain. The Daily Express refused to print a denial and the case went to the Press Council. That body upheld the complaint, but 573 the adjudication was made so long afterwards that the damage was done. Hon. Members will understand what grief and trouble it caused to the mother among her neighbours. If this Bill had been law, she would not have had this unnecessary suffering inflicted on her.
What happened during the struggle over wages in the National Health Service dispute last year? The Government issued a large advertisement attacking the unions. I have a copy before me. It covered nearly a whole page of The Times and other newspapers. The trade unions involved immediately issued a statement saying that the so-called facts and figures in the advertisement were incorrect and misleading. Several newspapers reported, the denial, although usually in a short paragraph in the middle of a long story. Many papers, however, did not report the denial at all. Consequently, the print workers in Fleet Street went on strike to secure the printing of the union reply. If this Bill had been law, it would not have been necessary for the newspapermen to walk out to obtain the printing of the denial.
Now I shall quote a case which applies to Members of this House. I stress and readily admit, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that most Members of Parliament are quite capable of looking after themselves. It is ordinary people with whom I am concerned. A fortnight ago, I went to discuss this Bill with the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, who will reply to this debate. I said to him, "Let us consider a hypothetical case. Suppose the Daily Dishcloth said that you, a Conservative Member, and I, a Labour Member, are considering joining the Social Democrats. It is doubtful whether it would be libellous, but it would be exceedingly damaging to both of us."
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
It would be exceedingly damaging to the Social Democrats.
§ Mr. Allaun
To my astonishment, the Minister replied, "Far from being a hypothetical case, it actually happened to another Conservative Member who is a friend of mine." So I checked up with the Member and he confirmed that it was so, and that he had had the devil's own job to get the regional daily paper concerned to print his denial. Surely that was wrong.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
That case is not so hypothetical because it happened to a number of us, including myself, with The Sun. The truth is that, unless one proposes to enter financial commitments into which most of us are simply not prepared to enter, there is, in fact, jolly little redress, so it is no laughing matter.
§ Mr. Allaun
My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is right, and I shall come to that point later.
The Bill would give the public a right of reply to factual misreporting or misrepresentation of themselves in the media. In the case of daily newspapers, there would have to be a publication of the reply within three days. Where weekly or monthly papers were involved, it would have to be in the next issue. The reply would be published 574 without charge and in the same position as the original report and would be of the same length. This does not mean that a story of 10 paragraphs would have to be followed by a denial of 10 paragraphs. If the allegations complained about were only one paragraph in length, only one paragraph would have to be printed. It could not be tucked away at the foot of column 8 on page 16, where nobody would read it or people would disregard it as unimportant. If the false report had appeared on the front page, the denial would also have to be on the front page, and rightly so.
On radio or television, the reply would have to be published at an equivalent time. If the original report was made at peak broadcasting time, the denial would also have to be at that time. If the editor published the reply, that would be the end of the matter—no trouble.
What would happen if the editor denied inaccuracy? What would happen in the case of frivolous complaints by cranks? The case would go to a panel headed by a judge with experience of the subject and consisting of experts from the media and representatives of the general public. If the complaint were upheld, the reply would have to be published within three days after the case had left the panel. Failure to comply would mean a fine of up to £40,000. I shall explain in a moment why that sum has been fixed.
I hope that no hon. Member will say that the Bill is impracticable. A closely similar measure has worked, and worked successfully, for many years in West Germany, France, Denmark, Canada and many western countries. Britain is lagging behind in this aspect of civil liberties and rights.
I shall quote just two sentences from a five-page report that I have received from Dr. Soehring, a distinguished lawyer who practices in these matters in West Germany. It states:The Axel Springer Press estimates that about 50 counter-statements are published annually in the boulevard newspaper Bild, which is by far the largest paper of West Germany with about 5 million copies a day.So its circulation is even bigger than that of The Sun.The NDR, one of the big German public radio and TV stations which serves the northern territories of West Germany with three federal states and additionally handles the TV service for all of West Germany, estimates that about 20 demands for broadcasting a counter-statement, both on radio and TV, are made per annum. They will actually broadcast about 5 to 10 counter-statements a year, as was estimated by their legal department.The Bill is on almost identical lines to the French law. Some hon. Members may think that television is a more difficult terrain for the right of reply to operate in than the press—possibly it is. In France, in the case of television, in the years 1976 to 1979, in 19 instances the right of reply had been exercised by private individuals, and there were 13 instances on Radio France.
In addition, the right of reply has been exercised three times on French television by opposition parties.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
Will my hon. Friend tell the House, because it is not clear from the Bill, whether the panel would supersede the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which is charged with the duty of providing the right of reply and has statutory backing?
§ Mr. Allaun
I am glad that my hon. Friend has asked me that question. In about half a minute I shall deal with it.
575 It may be asked, why go to all this trouble for 35 cases? Surely the answer is that the law has meant that hundreds or thousands of other cases have been prevented because television and radio editors and producers have become more responsible.
I shall now consider the objections. The first is that complainants could take out a libel suit instead. That is not so unless they are extremely wealthy. It is possible for Sir James Goldsmith, but not for the ordinary man or woman. Legal aid is not available in libel cases. I stress that the libel law would not be altered in any way by the Bill. As the House knows, newspapers have highly paid lawyers. One has 15. They also have heavy insurance policies.
It may be objected that the Bill is attempting to do the job of the Press Council. The National Union of Journalists and many others make justified criticisms of the Press Council, although the Manchester branch of the NUJ, to which I belong, first asked for the establishment of the Press Council in 1947. The criticisms are threefold. The first is that the Press Council has no power to require a newspaper to publish a reply and no power to punish it. Secondly, there are often delays of six or nine months before an adjudication is made, by which time the damage is done irreparably. I had a successful case before the Press Council, which it upheld, but a hell of a long time elapsed before the adjudication was made. The final objection is that the Press Council is overloaded with and over-influenced by press proprietors' representatives.
Another argument raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), is that the Broadcasting Complaints Commission can do the job. It cannot. Although the Annan committee recommended that it should have the power to prescribe remedial action for treatment that it found to be unfair and to require the responsible broadcasting authority or company to broadcast an apology to any justly aggrieved person, the Broadcasting Act 1981 ignored both those recommendations. Therefore, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission has no such power.
As a Member of the House for 27 years, I have balloted on every occasion for motions and Bills, and have never been lucky till now. Therefore, I decided to choose an issue that I thought was useful and important, and had a chance of success. The 12 sponsors allowed include six Conservative Members and six Labour Members. The Bill was inspired by Tom Baistow, an experienced Socialist journalist. I have received great help from the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), one of the most distinguished lawyers in the House of Commons.
I do not claim that the details of the Bill are perfect. I would be amenable to the Bill being amended in Committee. I hope that those who are sympathetic to the principle of the measure will support it. It is not a panacea. As long as we have a press that is owned and controlled by millionaires, there is no complete cure. This is a limited reform. In the interest of extending democracy, I ask hon. Members to vote in favour of it.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on his good fortune in the ballot after so long a waiting period and on the good use that he has seen fit to make of it. I congratulate him, too, on the persuasive and 576 moderate way in which he has put his case. I thank him most sincerely for his kind and characteristically overgenerous reference to me.
Surprise has been expressed in some quarters at my association with the Bill and that of some of my hon. Friends—a sort of "Is Saul also among the prophets?" I do not apologise for making common cause with the hon. Gentleman in the Bill, nor do I find it an occasion for surprise. Fortunately, political enmity is not characteristic of our parliamentary system. I recall my father telling me years ago of a remark made to him by the late Chuter Ede. My father attended a dinner at which Chuter Ede and Walter Monckton were the principal speakers. Afterwards my father said to Chuter, "How nice it is to see two political enemies like you and Walter on such friendly terms tonight." He replied, "My dear Jonah, Walter and I are not political enemies. We are political opponents. The political enemies are the chaps on your own side who are trying to pinch your job." Fortunately, I have no job, so I have no political enemies. No doubt the House will hear expert testimony on that interesting point from the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley).
Although Chuter Ede, that great democrat and parliamentarian, made that observation in a jesting way, he would agree, as we all would, that one of the cherished characteristics of our parliamentary democracy, this great heritage bequeathed to us by our forefathers, not without toil and sacrifice, is that the things which unite us are much greater and more enduring than those that divide us.
There is, or should be, nothing to shock or surprise in hon. Members of various political persuasions and allegiance being joined in the promotion of what they believe to be a worthwhile and proper objective. The Bill is such a case. The end that the Bill seeks to serve is good, no less than the proper application in this context of the great principle of natural justice. That being so, propose to seek to show why the Bill accords with that principle; why it does not conflict with the proper freedom of the press; why some such measure is necessary at this time; and why, while, like all Bills, it is capable of improvement in later stages, its mechanics do not deserve the criticisms that have been levelled against them.
It is called the "right of reply" Bill, but it might equally have been called the "right to be heard" Bill. The right to be heard is one of the basic ingredients of the great concept of natural justice which is one of the great principles of the rule of law that constitutes one of the twin pillars of our constitution according to Dicey's description of it. It is formulated on the maxim audi alteram partem—hear the other side. It is a concept which that great authority, Professor Wade, has said is fundamental to fair procedure and one of the most far-reaching principles of natural justice.
Indeed, as Mr. Justice Fortescue observed in the seventeeth century in Bentley's case:Even God himself did not pass sentence on Adam before calling on him to make his defence: 'Adam', said God, 'Where art thou? Hast thou not eaten of the Tree whereof I comanded thee that thou shouldst not eat?'If God accorded to Adam the right of reply, how can the media claim to be exempt?
We are here concerned, then, with a fundamental principle and a long-standing precedent. If it is right that a citizen has the right to be heard and to put his own case 577 when assailed by one individual, how can it be otherwise when he suffers or believes that he suffers at the hand of a great organisation with a mass circulation?
On the face of it, the answer is clear. It is what lawyers call an open and shut case. It must be so, unless there can be shown to be some overriding reason to exclude it—for example, that the application of this great principle would breach some other principle of equal or even greater value.
Indeed, it is that which is alleged in this case. It is said that the right to be heard, as here proposed, would involve a derogation from that other great principle of the freedom of the press. If that were so, it would impale us on the horns of a painful dilemma—an unwelcome choice between breaching one or other of those great principles. Fortunately, it is not so. There is no such conflict and no such dilemma. There is nothing in the Bill that injures the freedom of the press as it is properly understood and exercised. The freedom of the press is certainly a great principle and one that is essential to a free society. I wholeheartedly and unreservedly concur with that.
Every schoolboy knows, to adapt Macaulay's dictum in another context, the pronouncement in the dedication to the letters of Junius:The liberty of the press is the palladium of all the civil, political and religious rights of an Englishman.The reference to the palladium did not then carry the possible double entendre that might arise today. Perhaps it is not wholly inept in some cases and circumstances. Nevertheless, the concept of freedom of the press and its great importance, as expressed in Junius's famous words and, 100 years or so earlier, in Milton's classic condemnation of censorship in the Areopagitica, is implanted deep in the breasts of us all.
Nevertheless, the practice of that general principle does not invest all the content of the press with a special sanctity or immunity from correction or control. I remember, at a lobby lunch about 30 years ago, the function of the press being expressed in less sonorous and respectful terms by no less a man than the late Herbert Samuel. He had a brilliant mind and was a great Liberal statesman—we are all ecumenical today. He said:The function of the press is to separate the wheat from the chaff and to print only the chaff.There is a tendency perhaps to read more into the phrase "freedom of the press" than it properly and logically should have. It was referred to by William Cowper as the "God of our idolatry", but it is in fact a human institution with its fair share of human error and imperfection. Freedom in the context of the press is subject to the same constraints and limitations as in the case of individuals and other institutions.
Freedom confers no right of special privilege and no right to injure others, without affording them remedy or redress. Freedom most certainly does not involve giving a free hand to the strong to oppress or vilify the weak. The press is an institution of enormous strength. It commands great respect in the proper exercise of that strength and it must, like all who have great strength, be careful not to abuse it. It must constantly keep in mind the words of Shakespeare in "Measure for Measure":O! it is excellentTo have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannousTo use it like a giant.It is clear that the principles of natural justice, of which the right to be heard is one, require rights such as are 578 contained in the Bill, subject to proper safeguards. Subject to one improvement to which I shall refer, there are proper safeguards. There is the right of appeal to, and adjudication by, the proposed panel with its judicial chairmanship. The panel will comprise a balanced and informed membership, including full participation of the various aspects of the media. That should guarantee an expert and impartial decision which, I hope, will be acceptable to all. The only alternative that has been suggested is that put forward by the Guild of British Newspaper Editors. It says:The complex issues of right of reply are best handled by the Editor exercising his independent judgment within a framework of principle developed by a voluntary Press Council.With great respect, that is unrealistic and unacceptable. To suggest that the editor of a newspaper against whom a complaint is made can make an independent judgment is obviously absurd. In those circumstances, the editor is a vitally interested party to the dispute, and in an adversarial position to the complainant. How can he possibly make an independent judgment? He would be making an ex parte decision and be acting as judge in his own cause. That position is incompatible with the principles of natural justice.
I shall deal briefly with the other criticisms of the Bill as the hon. Member for Salford, East has dealt with them. With the single exception that I shall mention soon, I believe that they are groundless. It is true that other remedies already exist. For example, there is the right to sue for damages and an injunction for libel. However, such a remedy is not a substitute for what is here proposed. It is slow moving, uncertain, expensive and attracts no legal aid. Many an aggrieved citizen would understandably shrink from risking his possibly slender resources on such a hazardous exercise.
Another criticism is that the Bill does not distinguish between errors of fact and misrepresentation. In this context, that distinction is without a difference. Misrepresentation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meansto represent improperly or imperfectly; to give a false account of".The only difference, therefore, between misrepresentation and misstatement of fact is motive. Motive would be relevant if the remedy were damages; but as it is merely correction and reply, the motive is immaterial.
The Bill is also criticised because it includes a reference to distortion. Again, I find it difficult to understand why. Distortion, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, meansthe twisting or perversion of words, facts, history, etc.There is a long usage of that phrase—it dates back to the seventeenth century—and it is well understood. Like the elephant, distortion is difficult to define but easy to recognise, certainly by an expert panel such as is here proposed.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)
Is it my right hon. and learned Friend's understanding that prosecutions under the Bill will be brought by the police or the private person? If it is the latter, as in common sense it must be, does not that involve the private person in all the problems of litigation about which he has just warned us?
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith
As my hon. and learned Friend knows, my practice of the law does not make me 579 a frequent attendant in the criminal courts where he practises with such expertise and acclaim. I can refer that matter of detailed mechanics for his opinion in Committee.
When dealing with distortion, there is an element of suppressio veri just as much as suggestio falsi, and the suppression of a truth would come within the ambit of distortion.
I come finally to the one criticism that I believe has some validity, and which I would ask the House to consider if the Bill goes further. It is the alleged danger of a flood of unfounded and irresponsible complaints. That danger can be met by the safeguard of an award of costs in proper cases. Such a power to award costs, if given to a statutory tribunal, should be expressly conferred in the statute setting it up. For example, section 18 of the Arbitration Act 1950 gives the arbitrator power to award costs. There is no such power in the Bill as it stands. It may be better perhaps to await the views of the House and Ministers on Second Reading, but proper provision can be made, if the House thinks fit, in Committee.
I have found an appropriate precedent in rule 11 of the Industrial Tribunals (Rules of Procedure) Regulations 1980, which enacts that a tribunal shall not normally award costs, but may award them against a party where, in its opinion, that party has acted frivolously, vexatiously or otherwise unreasonably. A similar provision directed against frivolous or vexatious conduct would be an effective safeguard in this context. If the House wishes, I would propose that such a provision be inserted in Committee.
I believe that the incorporation of that safeguard would result in a fair and workable procedure and meet the one valid criticism of the Bill as it stands. The Bill thus improved will benefit not just the citizen—which it plainly will—but the real interests of the media by removing a cause for criticism and complaint which is widely held today.
I ask the media to see it in that light and not resent it as an attack upon it, which it neither is nor is intended to be. If the media are minded—wrongly, as I think—to resent it, I would commend to them the exhortation addressed by Hamlet to his mother when she resented his criticism:O Hamlet! thou has cleft my heart in twain",to which he replied:O throw away the worser part of it, and live the purer with the other half.Acceptance of the Bill would harm only the "worser" half of the media and by it alone should be resented. For the rest, I believe the majority, the Bill can do no conceivable harm. On the contrary, it will do good by removing grounds for reproach and by assisting it to enjoy and deserve, without qualification or abatement, the regard and esteem of the public.
I hope that, on reflection, the media will see it in that light, as I believe they should. I believe that the Bill gives effect to a basic and valid principle; it will do good to many and harm to none, and will operate fairly and even-handedly between all parties. I believe that it would be a welcome and useful addition to the statute book, and I ask the House to give it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Bristol, South-East)
I should like to join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on having sought the 580 opportunity to raise this subject in the House. It is a modest Bill. The fact that it attracts the support of Conservative Members shows that. I shall certainly study with great care what the right hon. and learned Member for Hertford, East (Sir Walker-Smith) said in supporting it, if for no other reason than that he defined parliamentary democracy in a way that I think would merit much deeper and more analytical thought.
It is surprising how rarely the House of Commons discusses the media, given the fact that they are a subject of wide discussion outside Parliament. While supporting the Bill, I want to argue that the problem goes rather deeper than the issues it raises. I believe that it is a genuine tragedy—I choose my words carefully—that we do not have a pluralistic press. I say "pluralistic" deliberately because, whatever view hon. Members may take about the appalling problems confronting the world and Great Britain—how to safeguard the peace, how to create jobs, how to meet need and civil liberties in a world where technology and centralisation increasingly threaten the citizen—people do not have access through the media to all the facts, to a full range of options or to an opportunity to understand the rich traditions and variety of ideas that are at our disposal if only we were allowed to know about them.
I do not want to make this speech an occasion for undue criticism, but I confirm what was said by my hon. Friend in moving the Bill, that press ownership is tightly controlled by a relatively small number of powerful people, some of whom are like Lord Beaverbrook, who frankly admitted to a Royal Commission that he owned his paper to make propaganda. Other newspapers, such as The Sun, are in the hands of big multinational companies. Not surprisingly, such newspapers reflect their owners' interests.
If one takes some of the crucial questions of the day, all the newspapers, whatever they may say on eve of poll about which party they recommend their readers to support, are united in favour of Great Britain's established defence policy. They are pro-Common Market, as we learnt during the referendum, when 8 million people who voted "No"—I was one of them—were denied the opportunity to read a national newspaper that shared that view. By and large, they are all anti-union when matters arise involving a conflict between capital and labour.
There is a small minority press—one daily paper which is the organ of the Communist party, the Morning Star, with a small circulation. There are other newspapers which put a different point of view but generally the newspapers reflect the establishment view, which does not meet the needs of many people.
The BBC and ITN are in an area where the framework of ownership is different. ITN is statutorily required to balance its argument, and the BBC is covered by a charter approved by the House. Despite those statutory rules, the BBC and ITN, in the presentation of the news, are still largely—I leave outside some special programmes that they may produce—the establishment voice, in the sense that there is a formula coverage of what happens. I have read the views of people who have monitored the media and I have watched and indeed taken part in many programmes. The news bulletins are almost always anti-trade union when there is a conflict with capital or with publicly owned industries. There is almost always a cold war item, a law and order item emphasising crime or disaster and, in the past 12 months since the Government 581 got tough with the BBC and the other media about the Falklands, there is generally an item in support of that policy.
As one who believes profoundly in the democratic process, I believe that any group that has power to set the agenda has a very great influence. That is the real power of the media. I cite just a few examples. Why has there been so much greater coverage of the attacks on civil rights in Poland than of those in Turkey where the leaders of the peace movement and the trade union movement are on trial for their lives? It is, of course, because Poland is a member of the Warsaw pact and Turkey is a member of NATO. Thus, in relation to those two countries, both under military control, people have not been allowed to appreciate, because it would be awkward for the establishment, that civil liberties are far more seriously threatened in terms of lives at stake in Turkey, which is one of our allies, than in Poland.
I am not arguing that the situation in Poland should not have been covered. I strongly oppose the arrest of Walesa and the way in which things have been handled in that country, but the people of this country are equally entitled to know that among our allies are some of the most rotten military dictatorships in the world.
§ Mr. Tim Brinton (Gravesend)
In describing BBC and ITN news programmes, the right hon. Gentleman referred to items portraying this or that and to the setting of the agenda. The right hon. Gentleman has experience of professional broadcasting. Does he accept that the agenda for a broadcast, and especially for a news broadcast, must be set by the editor in charge, because someone has to do that job? Will he also confirm that he differentiates between an item being the voice of the newsreader or newscaster and the freedom of speech and views of individuals invited to appear in the programme?
§ Mr. Benn
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will speak in the debate, as he raises important questions. My point is this. Mr. Speaker does not set the agenda for this House. He presides over a House in which the agenda is set mainly by the Government but also by the official Opposition on Supply Days, by an hon. Member such as my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East who wins the ballot, or by another hon. Member such as my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) tabling a question. The principle of management prerogative, as applied to Parliament, would mean that Mr. Speaker would decide exactly what was to be discussed, who was to be called and what the outcome would be. Hon. Members should be cautious about suggesting that there is only one way of doing things. In a free society, the people must set the agenda according to the issues that they raise.
The second aspect of the setting of the agenda is the differing treatment of dissidents. Our comment on the Soviet Union is rightly based on the belief that those who criticise the Government should have fair coverage. Yet British dissidents such as the women from Greenham Common, who are now in gaol, are treated quite differently. For more than a year when they lived in their plastic bags outside the camp they were scarcely mentioned—until they were gaoled under the Justices of the Peace Act 1361. If Conservative Members do not accept that, I can only say that that view is widely shared.
582 Thirdly, on the question of who is or is not to speak, I occasionally listen to "Farming Today". Interestingly enough, farmers are not merely allowed, but are encouraged, to criticise the Government. Everything that they say about agriculture policy is fairly reported over breakfast, with the views of this or that farmer in Northamptonshire or wherever. Yet the criticisms advanced by the trade union movement receive very different treatment. I cite just one example that greatly worries me—the treatment accorded to Derek Robinson of British Leyland. That man's character was virtually assassinated by the media although he was saying exactly the same thing as Lord Ryder said in the report that I appointed him to write. Because Derek Robinson was a member of the Communist party and because he was criticising the views of Sir Michael Edwardes, who had just been appointed, he was never allowed to make his case. Yet everything that he said about policy towards BL turned out to be right.
The fourth power of agenda setting lies in deciding what is to be covered in our domestic affairs. I was much struck by comment in the newspapers after the Toxteth riots, when the present Secretary of State for Defence took a busload of industrialists round Toxteth in an attempt to encourage private investment. Having been round Toxteth in the bus, the industrialists expressed amazement at what they had seen. Why were they amazed? It was because the problems of poverty do not normally reach the agenda until there are riots. There is then mass coverage of violence, having ignored the problems that led up to it.
It is amazing how much more coverage is given by the BBC and the ITN to the state of the pound sterling to six decimal points and to the state of the stock market than to the problems of millions of people in this country afflicted by long-term unemployment, lack of housing, education problems, and so on. Moreover, those who step out of line are subjected to misrepresentation, abuse and harassment and are crushed by the media. I make no complaints on behalf of public figures. Any public figure should be able to stand up for himself. I am therefore not arguing about what may be said about Mr. Livingstone, Mr. Scargill or myself. I have certainly never complained. Nevertheless, people who step out of line are misrepresented and their views are distorted. The Bill is designed to protect those people.
In all seriousness, I believe that the way in which the media are now structured and operated obscures the real issues, concentrates on personalities to the exclusion of real issues, denies understanding of the choices open to us and to that extent is a direct threat to democracy. I wish to identify some ways in which we might achieve a pluralistic press and pluralistic media.
First, the passage of the Bill will assist in that aim, although I am doubtful about an amendment in relation to costs, as costs may be used punitively if those with power to award them against complainants choose to do so, just as the possible cost of libel actions might frighten people off.
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith
I was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that. I almost wondered whether he had read the Bill with his customary care. If effect were given to that proposal, the panel would be headed by a High Court judge. Surely the right hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that such a person would abuse the power to award costs.
§ Mr. Benn
I am simply saying that many of the people covered by the Bill would be inexperienced in these matters. They would not normally think in terms of libel actions, but they might well be advised that if their action failed costs might be awarded against them. Knowing the costs that the legal system imposed on those who use it, people with a grievance might be frightened off by the amendment that the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East suggests. We must go further. If it is our desire to maintain a pluralistic press, it must be properly financed.
I appreciate that the idea of public funding of the media is suspect because some people say that we are arguing for a state press. I am opposed to that. But all parliamentary candidates get the benefit of one free post. All candidates are allowed to circulate to each of their constituents statements of their positions. That is the public funding of the media. Admittedly, it is only done once every five years, but the principle of funding dissent has long been accepted. Every candidate, whatever his opinion—in Bermondsey there are 26 candidates—receives money from the public coffers to circulate his arguments.
The schools are a form of media. We do not have commercial schools, and every child who goes to school is entitled to a full range of knowledge. In adult life we deny that funding of pluralism which is at the heart of the democratic process. It is also necessary that the censorship now exercised against the distribution of literature is lifted by public demand.
The anti-monopoly elements referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East need to be dealt with. If the House wants a pluralistic press, it should no longer accept the Official Secrets Act. The House should argue for a freedom of information Act to allow the press access to what goes on in the recesses of government.
What is required is a wider range of opinion. If people ask, "What is the test of fairness?", the answer is simple. If somebody hears his or her view presented on the media, the test of fairness is whether he or she says, "That is my view." It is a self-monitoring process. What people say about those views once they have been publicised puts it in the domain of legitimate comment. Nobody, but nobody, should allow a position to arise where his or her view is misrepresented, and then a discussion takes place on the basis of that misrepresentation.
§ Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Basildon)
Is it not the case that one man's legitimate comment will be another man's distortion?
§ Mr. Benn
I am not opposed to comment. If the hon. Gentleman doubts what I am saying let us consider the respectful way in which religious faith is covered. I have always been interested in theology. I listen to programmes about liberation theology in Latin America, about the views of the Quakers, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. I watched the Pope's visit. If we apply the same test of fairness to political opinions that the media apply to religious faith, I would be satisfied. If there was a programme that treated the trade unions as fairly as the farmers are treated, that would also satisfy me.
The House must accept that hon. Members are discussing a fundamental matter. The media in our society occupy a position similar to that occupied by the medieval church. Centuries ago there was a priest in every pulpit, in every parish on every Sunday who told the faithful what 584 the King wanted them to know. Today we have a pundit on every channel doing much the same thing. Proprietors use the guises of managerial prerogative or editorial discretion to ensure that ideas hostile to the status quo are not normally allowed out without some penalty of distortion.
I go further than the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East who defined parliamentary democracy in such an interesting way, by saying that we are now going back to the 17th century when the independents—the churchmen—who would not accept the Acts of Uniformity fought for and won our liberties. The people who demanded the right to speak, despite the five mile Act which kept them five miles from the centres of our cities, brought us our liberties. If dissent is ignored, crushed and distorted it will be more difficult to deal with the problems that confront this country, the world and the House. We shall find it harder to answer those problems.
Although I have been arguing the case of those who share my political views, what I have said should equally commend itself to those of different views. Hon. Members do not and cannot know, and only history will tell us, which views will be proved right in the end. We are all entitled to hear them all now, fairly represented and without the misrepresentation to which the Bill seeks a proper and overdue remedy.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
I am driven to remark that, with friends like that, who needs enemies or opponents, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) would say. So much of what the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said has nothing to do with the Bill. It has nothing to do with editorial policy, with reporting poverty in Toxteth or with the plurality of the press. The Bill concerns the right of reply.
As a sponsor of the Bill, I hope that it will be given a Second Reading. The hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) would not contend that it is perfectly drafted in every respect, but it enunciates an important principle. It should have a Second Reading and be considered in Committee.
I have certain reservations, one of which has already been mentioned by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East. The word "serious" should be incorporated in clause 1, because it has a good legislative and parliamentary lineage. The House is talking about serious misrepresentations and inaccuracies. That must be emphasised. The Bill should contain a penalty for a frivolous complaint. I do not accept what the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East said about the possible repressive nature of a High Court judge sitting with others imposing costs for frivolous complaints. However, those are Committee points and do not detract from the main thrust of the Bill.
The borderline between liberty and licence is difficult to define. The freedom of the press is very important, but it has never been an absolute freedom. It has been curtailed by the laws governing libel, obscenity, sedition and, more recently, racial prejudice, among others.
The Bill is different from previous legislation. The Bill does not state that one cannot publish or that, if one does publish, there will be a penalty. It simply states that, if an inaccurate report is published, it can be answered. No 585 penalty or restriction of freedom is involved unless the appeal to the tribunal is successful and the newspaper or other form of media does not comply.
It is unjust to lump all newspapers together. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East mentioned the power exercised by newspaper proprietors. Mention has been made of Mr. Rupert Murdoch of The Sun. A leader in The Times today, albeit not totally in support of the hon. Member for Salford, East, strongly supports the proposition that something must be done. When we talk about responsible journalism, there are good and bad newspapers, but one rotten apple affects the whole barrel.
There is general agreement that the press is not held in high esteem. It is thought by the general public to be powerful, unaccountable and, by and large, unscrupulous. The recent disclosures of cheque book journalism and the appalling harassment of the royal family have served only to strengthen those views.
That is unhealthy, and the press has only itself to blame. The Press Council, the industry's self-regulating body, was supposed to put matters right. Yet some newspapers hold it openly in contempt, and others completely ignore its findings. It is a paper tiger, if that is not too much of a pun. It is now being suggested, especially in The Economist, and today in The Times, that the Press Council should have teeth. One possibility is that its findings should be published on the front page of the newspaper concerned. That is not very different from the measure that we are suggesting today. However, there is another aspect to that. We all know that Fleet street is in a mess and, sadly, the disease is spreading to television. Whatever the reasons, and wherever the blame lies, there is no doubt that the employees of newspapers are killing the goose that lays the golden eggs instead of persuading the goose to lay many more, but smaller, eggs.
Eventually management, which also bears a large share of the blame, must act in concert to rectify the position. But before that happens there will be more casualties. Everyone realises that, and that more of the circulation will be concentrated in fewer hands. Consequently, the power without responsibility will be far greater than when Baldwin used his celebrated phrase in the 1930s. Even the dear old Daily Herald was operating then.
It has been and will be said that the Bill is political—that is why I was so distressed by what the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East said—and that I and my hon. Friends who have sponsored the Bill are dupes of the right hon. Gentleman and of the Trades Union Congress. It does not appear to me that the media are especially one-sided in their attacks or inaccuracies, as many of my hon. Friends will testify. But whatever we may think of the TUC and the various documents that have been circulated in support of the Bill, hon. Members on both sides of the House must agree that it is not healthy for the body politic if a large and important section of our society feels so bitterly about the media, as the trade unions definitely do.
We are talking not about comments but about facts and inaccuracies in the media. Recourse to the law of libel to remedy that is only for the rich and powerful. It is important to give the right of reply to the individual citizen or organisation. Unless we do that, as The Times said this morning, the demand for more oppressive legislation will grow, and the freedoms that we all wish to preserve—the 586 freedom of the media to say and publish what they wish about all aspects of public life—will be threatened. That is why I hope that at the very least we shall give this Bill a Second Reading and allow it to be discussed in Committee.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), who opened this debate so well, I shall begin with a statement of interest. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists and I am employed as weekly columnist by The Guardian and by Punch, and I occasionally find employment on other newspapers. I describe that involvement in detail not simply because of my fastidious concern for the conventions of the House, but because I wish to make it clear that I am not offering the comments on British newspapers and television that I shall offer this morning as one of its alienated and irreconcilable opponents. I am proud to be part of British journalism, or, to be more precise, I am proud to be part of part of British journalism. What is clear from most of today's speeches, and what will become increasingly clear as the day goes on, is that there are several different strands, trends and traditions in British journalism. Some newspapers would be largely unaffected if my hon. Friend's Bill were passed, but many would be directly affected by it. Their conduct would be changed by it, and our society would be better for those changes.
It is impossible for anyone who works with or reads British newspapers not to realise that they are afflicted by deep and serious problems that do not afflict newspapers in other Western democracies. My comments this morning are about newspapers rather than the BBC and independent broadcasters. However, I share my hon. Friend's view that his Bill, if it comes amended into law, should apply to the broadcasting media no less than to the printed word. For years the BBC has produced programmes of a high quality that is matched only by the arrogance of its response to any criticism when it falls below its normal high standards. I have no doubt that if there is to be some balance or influence towards objectivity, pressure to provide the right of reply must be extended to broadcasting no less than to newspapers.
However, I wish to put the Bill in the context of newspapers. As I said, British newspapers are afflicted with a malaise that is peculiar to this one country in Western society. The problem is the polarisation of those newspapers. The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) said rightly that the debate is not about politics in newspapers but about protection for those who suffer because of newspapers. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) is equally right to say that the polarisation of British newspapers causes problems for individuals who fall foul of the newspapers' prejudice. I refer to polarisation because bias is clearly not the right word. All newspapers are biased. The great newspapers of the world are biased in one direction or another. The extraordinary thing about British newspapers is that they are almost entirely biased in a single direction. The bias applies not only to national but to local newspapers.
Many years ago I accompanied Senator Muskie on one of his campaigns to obtain the Democratic presidential nomination. In state after state, his morning began with a briefing at breakfast when one of his aides would explain 587 to him the political position of the newspaper in the town where they were that morning. It struck me then that anyone making such a tour of Britain would not need to waste his time with such information. He would always know during the train journey the political position of the regional or local newspaper in the area where he was campaigning.
My complaint is not that the bias or the polarisation is concerned with views different from mine, or with attacks on the party of which I am a member, but that it has an extraordinary effect on the way in which newspapers react to individual issues. It makes newspapers feel that when those issues are assumed to concern the establishment, they must be on the side of the establishment.
On this ecumenical occasion, I must say that that process has been enormously encouraged, and therefore society has been enormously damaged, by the recent practice of newspaper editors accepting knighthoods. It is extraordinary that men who are responsible for the policy of a newspaper should accept knighthoods from a Government. The three knighthoods that were conferred were greeted on the more serious side of Fleet Street with reactions that ranged from contempt to derision. However sensibly Fleet Street reacted to those three ennoblements—if that is the correct description—a newspaper that announces that it is being edited by a man who has accepted an honour from the Queen, but for which he was nominated by the Prime Minister, is asking for the complaints that are more and more justified and which that editor demonstrates and exemplifies.
I must emphasise that those complaints are not that newspapers are generally against the Labour party. Those of us who have been in the Labour party for 30 years have learned to live with that and to regard it as the natural course of events. It is that, because they are so geared to one point of view, they give less than just treatment to individuals who fall outside that point of view. I mean, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East said, trade unions, members of all the minorities and radicals in general.
I do not mean so much today's issue that radical causes do not get adequate treatment. My concern is that radical individuals will be treated by newspapers in a way that is possibly detrimental to them and ought not to be accepted and allowed in a free society.
The Bill is concerned about the individual's right to protect himself from newspapers. I make it clear that, when I talk about individuals, I talk largely about individuals who want to lead their own private lives in privacy. I take the view that people such as Members of this House, who have chosen to move into the public domain, cannot complain when they receive the sort of publicity that they would not wish to be directed towards them. If we choose to live public lives, we must pay the penalty of that publicity.
My concern is for very many people whose names we cannot remember—people who want to live in an obscurity which is their right—and who find that, because of circumstances over which they have no control, newspapers say things about them that have an adverse effect on their normal existence for the next decade. I give an immediate example of what I mean.
The principal victim of my example is in fact something of a public figure, but his family, who were cruelly treated as a result of what happened, are private individuals who wish to remain private. This is a man whose son died from 588 an overdose of drugs. Being a man whose name would be known to this House and is certainly known to many newspaper readers, he took the sensible and, many of us here would think, the dignified course of making a short statement concerning his son's death which the more respectable and responsible newspapers published as a matter of fact and proper concern since the son of a public figure had died.
He then, as many of us would do—I suspect that all of us would in these circumstances—chose to say nothing more in public but to retreat with his family into Ovate grief, only to discover to his astonishment that The Sun had published what purported to be an interview with him, describing what they claimed were the lurid conditions of his son's death and the lurid conditions that preceded it.
This man was advised that there might be a case in law. The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) will tell us whether that is true. But he was told, as are so many people, that there can be no certainty in these matters except enormous fees and cost, which the press barons could afford a great deal more easily than he could. He was also told that the net outcome would probably be weeks of speculation after the case about the circumstances of his son's death and about things that surrounded him. The outcome would probably be representatives of the same newspaper arriving at his door and at the doors of remote members of his family to ask for intimate details about his son's life immediately before the tragedy. He was told that in practice he had no recourse other than to go to the Press Council to see what it might do.
The Press Council, in my experience, does two things: the first is nothing and the second is to ask for a retraction and an apology; and even when it gets a retraction and an apology it turns out normally to be something that has been honed by the individual editor to be as offensive to the Press Council and the complainant as possible.
I give an example. A distinguished solicitor was accused by Sir John Junor in his column in the Daily Express of going out of his way to find famous clients whose fees would be paid out of public funds. The two parts of the allegation were both wholly untrue. The case went to the Press Council and the Press Council required Sir John Junor to make an apology and a correction. He wrote in his column the following week—I will not use the gentleman's name, because it has been bandied about enough—I am delighted to accept … assurance that his headline-making clients are paying their fees out of their own pockets.That does not seem to me to be redress of a sort that would be regarded as reasonable by any reasonable man, although it is, I fear, typical of the best that is presently obtained from the Press Council.
The worst that is obtained is a great deal worse. It is indicative of whether there is a better form of improving press standards than the one that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East recommended this morning—whether the British newspaper industry will ever regulate and discipline itself and struggle to improve its standards. I do not believe that it is possible to read our tabloid newspapers and come to the conclusion that there will be a sudden desire to improve their standards and to change their conduct. If anyone still holds that view, it is worth while examining the, case of the Daily Mail, as arraigned in front of the Press Council a few weeks ago.
589 The House will recall that the Press Council examined one of the more sordid passages in British journalism—the pursuit of the memoirs of Mrs. Sutcliffe, the wife of the man whom the newspapers had chosen to call "the Yorkshire Ripper". Many newspapers offered this unfortunate lady money. The Daily Mail did not offer Mrs. Sutcliffe money. Indeed, the editor, Sir David English, made it clear that he did not intend to pay Mrs. Sutcliffe money. He made that clear to his deputy editor. The deputy editor was required to give Mrs. Sutcliffe the impression that they were offering her money, for, although they did not want to buy her memoirs, as Sir David said, they wished tokeep their lines of communication open and prevent the information going to other newspapers.Very rightly, in the view of many hon. Members, the Press Council censured the Daily Mail for what it had done. What was its response? Was it the response of the romantics and sentimentalists about British newspapers—that it would try to do better in future? It was not. It was an assertion that its conduct had in no way been discreditable; that its subterfuge—the word "subterfuge" appeared in the article written on the subject by the editor—was wholly justified; that this was the nature of the free press. Whenever individuals like my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East, the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East or the hon. Member for Buckingham want to curtail the rights of the press to do enormous damage to the lives of private individuals, the newspapers say that their right to do that is essential in a free society.
§ Mr. Whitehead
Is not the case made more serious by the fact that the Press Council only discovered the information that it did about the behaviour of the Daily Mail and a number of other newspapers because Mr. Sutcliffe's defence counsel had happened to keep the chits and promissory notes pushed through Mrs. Sutcliffe's door? The newspapers had withheld information about the transactions in many cases.
§ Mr. Hattersley
That is absolutely true. It is a bizarre situation. The Daily Mail told the Press Council that it had no intention of buying Mrs. Sutcliffe's memoirs. That was literally true. What it did not tell the Press Council was that it had gone out of its way to deceive Mrs. Sutcliffe into believing that it intended to buy her memoirs.
The response from the editor of the Daily Mail was that the subterfuge—to use his word—was wholly justified in terms of freedom of the press. It is not freedom of the press about which such people are concerned. In this particular, the Daily Mail was anxious to prevent the story from getting into other newspapers—into the hands of its competitors. What newspapers are concerned with on these occasions is circulation and profit. One of the more nauseating aspects of the entire debate is that, when newspapers make money out of exploiting grief and suffering, they always justify it by talking about their eternal liberties which they pretend they are attempting to protect.
I believe that our eternal liberties involve balance, justice for individuals and, as the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East said with such eloquence, the right to reply. For all those reasons I propose to vote 590 for my hon. Friend's Bill at 2.30 this afternoon. I do not pretend that the Bill's application is without difficulties. Indeed, trying to write about it in one of the newspapers in which I wrote, I made an essay at paradox and said, not very successfully perhaps, that I regarded it as largely unworkable and wholly desirable. That is my attitude. I would much prefer an instrument that we could be sure would work with precision. I would much prefer a newspaper industry in which the Bill was not required.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East shares my view that we are not prepared to consider the Bill, with its admitted inadequacies, on the basis that the British newspaper industry is perfect. We are trying to get a better world and, for all the difficulties involved, I believe that my hon. Friend's Bill will help to provide that better world.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
Naturally, I am grateful for the support of my right hon. Friend, who has instanced some very important cases, but he is suggesting that the Bill might be unworkable. I assure him that the Bill is drafted very closely in the light of the experience of countries which have operated such a measure successfully over many years. Therefore, if it can be done there, it can be done here.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I accept that entirely.
I talked about my attempt at paradox in Punch, as my hon. Friend will recall. While everything that I say in the House has to be taken with the literal seriousness with which it is intended, sometimes the things that I write in Punch, like other things in Punch, verge on the border of being humorous. I never say that they fall over the right side of the line but sometimes they hover around it.
I accept without qualification that, perhaps with a couple of amendments, it would be possible to make my hon. Friend's Bill the workable instrument that we want to see, although there are some difficulties, and it is only fair to describe them.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) talked about the bias which is in itself damaging to individuals. He talked about its effect on individual members of trade unions. I was deeply offended 10 days ago by a television broadcast which had dealt with the water strike. It showed an isolated example of a hospital where there were temporary difficulties. There had been a mains burst which had not been repaired with the speed with which it would have been repaired had there not been a water dispute. By any standards, that is a sort of bias. It was not typical of the situation and it did not contribute to the argument about the merits of the dispute; but it was clearly damaging to the lives and reputation of water workers in the area of that isolated example. It may be damaging to the reputations of water workers throughout the country. In my view, it was a disgrace; an example of selective journalism of the worst sort. I cannot imagine how in those circumstances there could be an adequate reply.
Therefore, even with my hon. Friend's Bill there would be some problems and some remaining injustices. There would be some occasions when people who had been injured would not get proper recompense for their injury.
I repeat what I said at the beginning of my speech. I believe that the state of some British newspapers, in terms of their relationships with individuals—very often humble individuals—is such that the lives of the latter are damaged 591 to a considerable extent without there being an adequate opportunity for them to defend themselves. Therefore, a step in the direction of my hon. Friend's Bill is absolutely right.
I am reinforced by no less an authority than the chairman of the Press Council. When he made the adjudication on the Sutcliffe case—the purchase of Mrs. Sutcliffe's memoirs—he said that unless the newspapers started to regulate themselves, the demand for some statutory regulation would be overwhelming. The response to that judgment by the chairman of the Press Council was Sir David English's announcement that his subterfuge was wholly justified.
The newspapers will not regulate themselves. Therefore, in my view, the sort of measure that my hon. Friend recommends is wholly necessary.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Those of us who have been here for several Fridays recently have noticed that the Ministers taking part in debates have taken an inordinate amount of the time devoted to private Members' business—often 45 or 50 minutes. Will the Chair give some direction in that respect with regard to our business today and in the future?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) has raised a point which is very close to my heart, because I think that many hon. Members take a long time in making their speeches, whether from the Front Benches or the Back Benches. Mr. David Mellor.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. One understands and welcomes the fact that the Front Benches wish to make their interventions in the debate at the appropriate time. The debate has continued for one and a half hours, but there has not yet been one speech in opposition to the Bill. Therefore, I find it very strange that a Minister should intervene before we have had a full debate on the merits of the Bill.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When I first came to the House in 1974, Ministers and Opposition Front Bench spokesmen used to speak early in the afternoon. It was recognised that that was done because Ministers had to get to their weekend constituency engagements. There was some acceptance of the practice. But we now find that Ministers and Opposition Front Bench spokesmen are speaking earlier and earlier in the debates. Indeed, it looks as though it may not be long before they will be opening the debates on private Members' motions and Bills.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The point that I wish to make is the same as that just made by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). Supposing that some of us want to ask questions in order to obtain clarification of the Government's attitude on important issues, when are we to be answered?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The points of order place the Chair in some difficulty because it is usual to call Front Bench speakers when they rise. Therefore, when the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. 592 Hattersley) rose, I naturally called him. If the Minister chooses to rise now, I shall by convention call him. I do not know whether he wishes to do so.
§ Mr. Whitehead
Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May we appeal through you to the Minister to restrain himself until a later stage in the debate?
§ Mr. Mellor
I should be happy to do that, but with some discomforture, because I imagine that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who has just spoken, would have expected me to follow him. However, I think that I sense the mood of the House on each side, so I shall resume my seat.
§ Mr. Hattersley
That releases the Minister from any obligation that he feels. I received a note from the Whips asking me whether I would speak next and stating that the Minister would speak thereafter. As usual, I was obedient—
§ 11.7 am
§ Sir Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
I am the first hon. Member who has been called to oppose the Bill, but, although I rise to oppose it, and although I have spent most of my working life in journalism—part of it as a newspaper editor—I do not intend today to make a stirring defence of the press and its behaviour, let alone of the behaviour of the electronic media. I well understand the motives which have prompted my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Bill. I think that I understand even better the reasons which have prompted the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and his hon. Friends to put forward the Bill yet again.
I agree entirely with the closing words of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), that unless the press made some effort to deal with justified complaints and the distrust which the public felt for it, some measure of this kind would become unavoidable and that the demand for it would be irresistible. The question is whether this Bill is the right way to deal with the problem.
I want to deal first with the principle and then with detail and workability.
The political implications of the Bill—which have certainly not been stressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith)—are much deeper and much more powerful and obvious than have been suggested so far by the proponents of the Bill.
I was glad that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook brought the political issues out into the open. I sympathise with the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East. More often than not I have disagreed with what he has said, but I believe that he has had a rotten deal from the press and the media of this country; that they have built him up into some sort of ogre, either by deliberate distortion or by the omission of parts of what he has said, so that his genuinely held views have been distorted. But when he talks, as both he and the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook did, of the need for a pluralistic press, this is a very dangerous road to go down, especially if he also talks about public subsidies. I am sorry to have to tell the 593 right hon. Gentleman that it will not work, anyway. In view of the very large sums of money which the British trade union movement has had at its disposal in the past, there was no reason why the Daily Herald and its successor should have folded and why another Left-wing newspaper should not have been started. It never has worked, and it will not work.
I will venture to explain why it will not work. It is because the earnest and well-intentioned people who run Left-wing or leftish newspapers will insist on trying to give their readers what they think those readers ought to read. The wicked capitalist employers and their editors know perfectly well that the only way to enable a newspaper to survive is, by proper market research and attention to the circulation figures, to give their readers what those readers actually want to read. That is why those newspapers survive and the others do not. Deplorable though it may be that the taste of some readers produces some newspapers that the high-minded do not like, that is what free choice and democracy are about.
I can understand the disapproval of Opposition Members. I can understand their political frustration. I can imagine what I would feel if all the national daily newspapers were controlled by Mr. Ken Livingstone or the members of Militant Tendency. I should not like it in the least. However, that is most unlikely to happen because none of them could make a go of a newspaper for more than about a month.
But there are political implications here. There is no doubt that many journalists and editors believe that the press is already too circumscribed by the libel laws, by the law of contempt of court and by the Official Secrets Act. Opposition Members have tried on several occasions to get some of these constraints liberalised. But these do not go to the root of the complaints which have been made against the press. There is no legal aid in libel cases, they take far too long to get to court, and the sort of complaint which has been made about individual cases here is not met by those legal restraints on the freedom of the press.
There is a great deal of inaccuracy in the modern newspaper. By the time that the printers have finished with it, sometimes it is difficult to tell what a sentence was even intended to mean, let alone what it means when it emerges in print. But inaccuracy is inevitable in newspapers. There is no escape from it.
The great editor of the Daily Express, Arthur Christiansen, once called his staff together—this story was also given in evidence by the late Mr. John Gordon to the first Royal Commission on the press in 1949—and said, "You and I know that if we read any story in a newspaper on a subject about which we have some direct or expert knowledge, something in that story is always wrong." That is as true today as it ever was, as we all know.
Inaccuracy is virtually inevitable at some stage in the production of almost every newspaper. It is partly a problem of time. Those who talk high-mindedly about the deficiencies of newspapers very seldom have any idea of the almost traumatic experience of trying to get a daily newspaper out on time and of the pressures which it involves on everyone. Stories change, to say nothing of the uncomfortable habit of Wall street opening in the afternoon and the Australians insisting on doing their business in the middle of the night, so that at awkward hours and between editions new stories arrive, pages have 594 to be replated, stories have to be moved from one page to another and paragraphs have to be cut out. I know from bitter experience that rapid cutting by a harrassed sub-editor can do more to distort a story and make it inaccurate than deliberate or accidental miswriting in the first place.
There is another reason why inaccuracies are perpetuated. It is due to the cuttings files in newspaper libraries. These perpetuate error in the most remarkable way. I remember a case of which I had personal knowledge. The distinguished political correspondent of a Sunday newspaper wrote a story many years ago which included one misstatement of fact which I knew to be a misstatement of fact. That misstatement of fact appeared regularly in almost every newspaper which dealt with the subject for the next five years or so, until finally I got fed up and wrote a letter to someone about it.
The material which gets into the cuttings file is established, and an inaccuracy tends to be repeated. This can happen again and again. All this is inevitable as long as people want daily newspapers, and people will want daily newspapers as long as it takes for the electronic media to replace them. I assure the House that when the electronic media have replaced the printed newspaper, the difficulties of getting rights of reply will be infinitely greater than they are now.
Is this Bill right in principle? I noticed that in what I thought was a well-balanced leading article in the Financial Times yesterday the leader writer said:The classic case against the law intervening in these matters was made by Thomas Jefferson 170 years ago: 'I deplore … the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write for them.'That is probably a fair reflection of the views of some Opposition Members today. Jefferson said that this was an evil for which there is no remedy; our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.
I am not sure that I go quite as far as that. I am content to rest my argument on the conclusions of the last Royal Commission on the press, which reported in 1977, dealing with the proposal which had been put to it for a legal right of reply as had been operating in West Germany. That Royal Commission was not a notably Right-wing body and certainly was not overweighted with representatives or champions of the press. I think that I am right in saying that neither Mr. David Basnett nor Mr. Geoffrey Goodman, who were members of the commission, dissented from that part of the Royal Commission final report. The Royal Commission said:Our objections are on grounds of principle … we believe that the press should not be subjected to a special regime of law, and that it should neither have special privileges nor labour under special disadvantages compared with the ordinary citizen. That argues against a special measure for ensuring a right of reply. We prefer a non-legal method of securing corrections.That was the conclusion of an impartial Royal Commission which had spent a great deal of time on the matter and had heard a great deal of evidence about how the system worked in other countries and had considered the question of principle. The House should attach a great deal of weight to that conclusion.
The Royal Commission went on to recommend that the Press Council should see that newspapersmake editorial space available to those they have criticised inaccurately so that they may set the record straight without delay.595 That is an unexceptionable proposal. The Royal Commission went on to say:We recommend further that, as part of the process of conciliation which we have proposed, the Press Council should involve itself actively in obtaining the publication as soon as practicable of counter-statements on behalf of people who have been criticised unfairly on inaccurate information".It is worth noting that, in both those passages, the test which the Royal Commission laid down involve criticism of the complainant based on inaccurate information. Therefore, the test requires both inaccuracy and criticism, which would cut out many of the cases which we have heard today. The Bill goes much further than the test laid down by the Royal Commission and some of its definitions and phraseology in fact ensure that it will be unworkable. The Bill does not define a newspaper and there is no doubt whatever that that will cause trouble. There are probably about 1,200 newspapers in Britain on a fairly narrow definition of the word and, in addition, there are many other journals which could be held to be newspapers.
How does one define what "involves" a person and what can be considered reasonable grounds for considering something to be factually inaccurate or distorted? I have no doubt that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East would say—indeed, I think that he did—that the judge who will head the proposed panel would use a conventional common law test to decide whether an appeal was reasonable once the case came before him. But it is before the case gets to the panel that the test of what is reasonable is important, because at that point it is not objective, as it would be to the judge, but purely subjective. The demand will be made if the individual himself thinks that his case is reasonable.
I must tell the Bill's proposers that it is not only reasonable people who will complain. Everyone from the mildly eccentric to the wholly paranoic will consider that he has reasonable cause for complaint. There are people, familiar to all Members of Parliament, who write us letters underlining words in different coloured inks and complain that they are being persecuted by the checkout clerks at Tesco, the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. The point is that their complaints are not frivolous to them. My right hon. and learned Friend may think that the threat of costs will cut down the number of complaints which come to the panel. It will not, because these are not frivolous complaints; they are deeply felt complaints and entirely reasonable to the person who makes them.
§ Mr. W. Benyon
Can my right hon. Friend explain why such nut cases do not exist in Germany or France?
§ Sir Angus Maude
I have no doubt whatever that they do. I suspect that the reason is simply both that the German newspapers are somewhat different from ours and that the Germans are much more disciplined people and keep their nut cases under much better control than we seem to do.
I assure the promoters of the Bill that it will not be just the tabloid dailies which will cause the complaints, as they genuinely seem to believe. No doubt they do most harm, but there are 1,200 newspapers, and local resentments can arise from reports in local newspapers, which can run very deep indeed. A misreport of who won the cake baking competition at the women's institute can cause a great deal of trouble, particularly when we go beyond "factually inaccurate" to the rather ominous word "distorted". The range of claims that could be made is almost unlimited. 596 I should like some supporter of the Bill to tell me what the Bill would do about the factual reporting of other people's speeches.
§ Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)
Will not the Bill act as a deterrent to factual inaccuracy? Perhaps journalists on small or national newspapers will be more careful to get their facts right in future.
§ Sir Angus Maude
They are careful now but inaccuracies will always creep in. Every hon. Member knows what happens when that ghastly group photograph is taken before a civic or association dinner, when the photographer is desperately trying to get the spelling of names right and the town clerk or the agent is desperately trying to get people to the table. The names are always wrong and some glamorous blonde who belongs to a visiting business man is identified as the mayoress, which infuriates the mayoress and embarrasses the mayor. I am afraid that such inaccuracy is inevitable.
There will always be someone who thinks that something in a speech involves a distortion. To take an extreme case, what would happen if The Times were to devote a double column on the front page to a lead story on a speech by President Reagan attacking the Soviet Union's policies? Would Mr. Andropov or the Soviet ambassador have equal space on the front page next day to deal with what they would undoubtedly consider to be distortions? The Bill would have political effects.
§ Mr. Dalyell
Mr. Andropov, or whoever represented him, could write a letter to The Times. Is there riot a distinction between those papers that carry a letter page and those that do not?
§ Sir Angus Maude
Yes, I recognise that. The letter page can do something to deal with that problem, but not many would think it was wholly satisfactory.
I am satisfied that the Bill is wrong in principle and unworkable in practice. But the demand for something similar to it will increase unless the press soon does something more to regulate itself. The Press Council says that it will speed up its procedures. That is all to the good. But editors, even if the Bill is passed, will have to be pretty careful about the right to reply. They will have to bear in mind the salutary warning of the case of Miss Honor Tracy and the Sunday Times. She wrote a story that attracted a libel writ to the Sunday Times. Its editor, not liking libel writs, decided not to contest it and published an apology and a retraction—whereupon Miss Tracy sued the newspaper. She claimed that her professional reputation had been defamed because the contents of the article were both true and in the public interest. She won her case. Editors have had to be a great deal more careful about giving the right to reply and making retractions following that case.
The Press Council must be the answer. The Royal Commission recommended that it should have more staff, more funds, conciliation machinery and a recognised code of practice that could be enforced. That would be fine, but it would require a great deal of effort to achieve it. Unless the press is prepared to set up a body that is as effective for it as the Advertising Standards Authority is for advertisements, some legislation will be inevitable.
I hope that the House will not give the Bill a Second Reading today, but that that will not be taken by the press as a continuing licence to sin.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on choosing for debate a subject of fundamental and topical importance. Often those who have an opportunity in the ballot choose a worthy but rather trivial topic. They may be right to do so if they want their Bill to reach the statute book.
The speeches today, on both sides of the argument, have been interesting and of good quality. It would be a crying shame, a terrible pity and a lost opportunity if the Bill were to be snuffed out at 2.30 pm. Surely, after all that has been said, the House should give the topic a structured discussion. We shall miss that opportunity if a great many hon. Members who have not heard the speeches vote at 2.30 pm and snuff out the Bill.
One problem is that if any apology is forthcoming it is months, or even years, later. That raises the whole question of delay. The contents of the original article may often have become as remote as the Dead Sea scrolls, but the mud and the pain remain. I find the Bill enormously attractive because it gives some urgency to the right of reply.
The issue to which I wish to devote my speech is the right of reply when the Prime Minister of the day is involved—a subject in which I have been interested for 17 years, ever since that extraordinary afternoon during Question Time when the hon. Member for Shrewsbury (Sir J. Langford-Holt), from the Bench now occupied by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East, entangled my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) in what became known as the "D-notice affair." I believe, retrospectively, that that was the beginning of the undoing of the 1966 Labour Government.
Until last year, while recognising the importance of the issue, I confess to having hesitated about whether legislation affecting politicians should be deemed necessary. Recent events, however, have quelled my doubts. All Prime Ministers have naturally tried to put the best face on matters, and some, like the combination of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton and Mr. Joe Haines, from time to time have come fairly near the limits of the acceptable. But any doings of Harold and Joe are as small beer compared with the operations of the Prime Minister and Mr. Bernard Ingham during recent months.
I referred in the House yesterday to the "Panorama" programme on which my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Foulkes) and the hon. Members for Flint, West (Sir A. Meyer) and Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) appeared. Mr. Robert Harris, on page 78 of his remarkable book "Gotcha!", said about that programme:Finally, the Prime Minister—'transfixed' is how one source described her—heard Cockerell describe how one of her 'former Cabinet Ministers with excellent Ministry of Defence contacts told me that there had been reservations from the start about the Falklands mission by the Chiefs of Staff', specifically Sir Michael Beetham, Chief of the Air Staff.[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no!"] This is relevant. Pressures are now being imposed by Foreign Office Ministers about last Monday's "Panorama" programme on the costs of Port Stanley airport—reported in today's Daily Express as £880 million.
On 7 February, the Leader of the House said in reply to the Consolidated Fund Bill debate on the Prime Minister's relations with the media—
§ Mr. Lawrence
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order, even in a Second Reading debate, not to address oneself at all to the subject matter of the Bill?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Paul Dean)
I am listenting carefully to the remarks of the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). It would not be in order to illustrate his point at great length. But it is in order to use some illustration to amplify his support for or opposition to the Bill.
§ Mr. Dalyell
The Leader of the House said about the Prime Minister's visit to the Falklands, and the release of the Franks report:I do not suppose for one moment that this debate will close the topic.To truncate my remarks, I shall refer to the Consolidated Fund Bill debate that took place at 8.15 am last Tuesday. I start from the basic and passionate, if commonplace and seemingly trite, belief that working journalists should be uninhibited in writing what they really think and believe to be true. Whether what they say suits me or any other politician is immaterial.
As a preface to my remarks, I wish to record that in 21 years as a Member of Parliament I have never yet made a complaint to newspapers about any of the less than flattering remarks that they have thought it proper to make about me from time to time. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) that if we wish to live public lives we had better not squeal on our own account.
It is a serious matter when attempts are made at news manipulation at the highest level. That brings me to a crucial issue—the embargo system and the lobby in the House of Commons. On 7 February, the Leader of the House said that Lord Marsh, chairman of the Newspaper Publishers Association, had written to Mr. Ingham saying that every endeavour would be used to ensure that embargoes were honoured. The Leader of the House said:The way is now clear for some relaxation of the tight restrictions placed on the operation of the system following the wholesale breach of the Falklands honours and gallantry list embargo in October."—[Official Report, 7 February 1983; Vol. 36, c. 837–8.]Let us be candid about why that embargo was breached. Fact No. 1 is that the list was given out on Thursday 7 October. Fact No. 2 is that the embargo should have been lifted on Monday 11 October—an extraordinary and unusual four-day period. This is explained by fact No. 3, that the Prime Minister was addressing her party conference on Saturday 9 October and did not want her speech to be overshadowed by the publication of the honours list.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is filibustering, but is he not becoming more and more out of order? What on earth have his remarks to do with the Bill, which we want to discuss? It is an important Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will not go too far down that road. It is in order, of course, to use illustrations, but I am finding it difficult to relate the embargo arrangements to the subject of the Bill.
§ Mr. Dalyell
The truth is that, in this case, the embargo was imposed not for the convenience of the press but for 599 the political purposes of the Prime Minister. To use this excuse for failing to give an advance issue of the complex Franks report in the form of a confidential finally revised issue is a shameless attempt at the manipulation of the press.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have just told the hon. Gentleman that I am finding it difficult to relate his remarks to the Bill. Will he please come to the subject of the Bill?
§ Mr. Dalyell
I am referring to the reply when the press is manipulated or attempts are made at manipulation. I shall give an example.
On the following morning, since journalists had had such a short time to write what they had to say about the Franks report and could only pick out certain key words such as "exonerated", of course there was a predictable result. Had there been a right of reply 24 or 48 hours later, there may have been the type of comment that The Sunday Times thought fit to give the following Sunday. The truth of the matter—this is why it is relevant to the Bill—is that those politicians who succeed in getting their first gloss and their interpretation of events are at an enormous advantage. The immediate issue is that, as long as the embargo system lasted, as long as it was properly used and not abused, there was less argument for having the type of Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East is putting forward. As soon as people start tampering with the long-existing lobby system of a civilised embargo for 24 or 48 hours, the time it takes a man or a woman to read the complex report, urgency applies to the type of right of reply that my hon. Friend is putting forward.
§ Mr. Proctor
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's arguments and to relate them to the Bill. I think that he is talking about a report with which he disagrees. Was he mentioned in that report? Were any of his colleagues who hold similar views to his mentioned in the report? If they were not, according to clause 1 of the Bill, the hon. Gentleman would have no right of reply. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman could not use the Bill to help him.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I am afraid that the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Proctor) has struck unlucky, because I was mentioned in the report; I gave evidence for an hour and 20 minutes to Lord Franks and his colleagues and had some locus along the lines that the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. The answer is that in this case the Bill would be highly relevant and not irrelevant.
By the manipulation of what she did, the Prime Minister was home and dry. She had put her first gloss on the report. The nature of the press being such, anything that followed—I shall not say that it was like the Dead Sea scrolls—did not matter too much by that time.
Some of us agreed strongly with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said about BBC Television News. I make no complaint about Independent Television News, BBC Radio or Independent Radio News, but there are problems about inhibiting the long-term objectivity of the BBC which Alasdair Milne, whom I welcome very much as the new directorgeneral—those of us who knew him in Scotland have great confidence in him—and the new chairman of the board of governors—some of us are sorry to hear about the illness of George Howard and hope that he will have a speedy 600 recovery—be it Sir Nicholas Henderson or whoever it may be, should give their minds to the issue of the expression of minority opinions in what turn out to be highly emotive situations.
The pressures on the BBC worry many of us I quote again from "Gotcha!" on a subject of considerable concern to many hon. Members. On page 60 Robert Harris says:The BBC was told not to use a picture of a body in a bag, not to use the phrase 'horribly burned', not to show a pilot confessing, jokingly, that he had been 'scared fartless' on one mission. 'Clearance', rather than emotive words like 'censorship' or 'vetting', was the Ministry's euphemism for this extraordinary process.The BBC will have to develop a policy on such pressures. Where there can be the type of argument, which has been revealed, between Mr. Protheroe and Mr. Ingham where, rightly or wrongly, the Glasgow media group has revealed some of the internal workings—I do not know whether they were purloined but they have been revealed, although it was none of my doing—the fact is that the pressures of the BBC have come to light by hook or by crook. Nevertheless, they are there and in the light of this information it seems to me more and not less important that we discuss legislation such as my hon. Friend's Bill and, above all else, even if the Bill does not become an Act in this Parliament, we do not snuff out serious discussion of these delicate and important issues. Let my hon. Friend at least have his chance.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Before I call the next hon. Member, may I again appeal for short speeches? This is an important debate in which there is a great deal of interest on both sides of the House. Many hon. Members are hoping to speak.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I do not suppose that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) will recall, although I am sure many other hon. Members will actively remember, that it is almost exactly 26 years since the great Beckenham by-election. In that by-election I was the victim of a great inaccuracy in the Beckenham Journal. It reported that I had said the John Foster Dulles was a good friend of this country. I had in fact said the precise opposite. On the advice of Conservative Central Office I abandoned my campaign and went hot-foot to the chambers of Mr. Helenus Milmo, who was the leading libel advocate of the day. He, alas, said that no libel had taken place although a great inaccuracy had occurred. There was no redress.
I do not think that it made the slightest difference to the Beckenham by-election and in the 26 years that have passed since then I have not been the victim of any major inaccuracy by the local press, either deliberate or accidental. What one encounters only too often is the problem of ineptitude in reporting. One finds reporters who are subject to all sorts of pressures. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) described them. As a working journalist for many years, I am well aware of them.
The Bill would be unworkable in practice. In his moderate speech, the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) referred to an advertisement that had appeared in the press about the rates of pay that were in contention in the National Health Service dispute. Yesterday afternoon, while driving to the House, I listened to a report of a speech by a trade unionist from the National Union of 601 Public Employees on the current water dispute. If the employers and the Secretary of State for the Environment are to be believed, every fact and figure that I heard on LBC yesterday afternoon was wrong. No doubt, if the Bill had been in operation and the tribunal had been set up, the Department of the Environment and the employers' side in the dispute would be putting their case to the tribunal for a right of reply.
The hon. Gentleman believes that his Bill will protect the small man. I suspect it will protect pressure groups and the big battalions of public relations officers. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) told us that he believed that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the women from Greenham Common had not had much publicity until recent weeks.
Some months ago I had a debate in my constituency with Mrs. Joan Ruddock, the chairperson of the CND. The local press gave a fair and accurate account of that meeting and, as was only right and proper, it gave my speech more space than hers. During the next two or three weeks the most tremendous reaction came from the CND, which said that the report was wholly disgraceful and distorted the facts. In practice, the pressure groups will try to exert influence on the local press. They will not apply such great force on the national press.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
I agree that the Bill would not cure that offence, but suppose that the hon. Gentleman's local paper quoted Mrs. Ruddock as saying something that she did not say. Surely she should be entitled to the right of reply in that paper, and surely equal prominence should be given to her statement.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart
If Mrs. Ruddock had been misquoted materially, she would be able to write a letter to the newspaper and to have it printed in the newspaper. No doubt she would complain to the Press Council.
§ Sir Philip Goodhart
That would not necessarily be useless. There is no monopoly of the local press in Beckenham. No doubt the rival newspaper that had not misreported Mrs. Ruddock would give great prominence to her complaint to the Press Council. There is great diversity in the press. Usually there is not a local monopoly. That is our best protection.
If the Bill finds its way on to the statute book, it will curtail the freedom of the press, put undue pressure on journalists and work not on the side of the small individual who is misquoted or harassed but on behalf of the big battalions. It will also work on behalf of the legal profession. I showed a copy of the Bill yesterday to a friend of mine who is an eminent barrister. He said, "This will gum up the works, will it not?"
§ Sir Philip Goodhart
He was referring to the press works.
The hon. Member for Salford, East suggested that in Germany there are only a few score cases every year when complaints are made to the tribunal. I suspect that here there would be hundreds a day. Many would involve the pleas made by lawyers. I suspect that the Bill will not turn 602 out to be a gold mine for lawyers as are the laws of libel. However, it would be at least a copper mine for them. Therefore, I suspect that if the Bill became law, it would be bad for the press but good for the lawyers.
§ Mr. Phillip Whitehead (Derby, North)
Many hon. Members echo the line in the play "Night and Day" by Tom Stoppard, in which one of the characters says to an offensive journalist:I'm with you on the freedom of the press. It is the newspapers I can't stand.The freedom of the press that is enshrined in the serious editorials on the Bill, which I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on bringing forward, in the Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times represents the acceptable and conscionable side of the press. The tabloid press, in its cut-throat competition and determination to get the story whatever the cost in money or human suffering, is an unacceptable side of the press. The difficulty for all of us today is how to maintain the press freedom that we should like to preserve, to which everyone pays lip service, and in which some people sincerely believe, alongside some redress for those people who find themselves abused by the newspapers and have no effective remedy.
We have heard a variety of arguments against the Bill. I have not heard all the arguments that can be made against it. I shall invent a few more now so that I can knock them down. The arguments against giving the Bill a Second Reading must lie among three or four categories. The first is that the Bill is extremely dangerous. Some hon. Members have hinted at that, but we have not yet heard the extreme case that has been mounted by opponents of the Bill, which is that this is the first stage towards South African press laws and that we shall soon have a licensed press the like of which we have not had in Britain since the repeal of the Stamp Act. I hope that we shall not hear those preposterous arguments. I see that the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) is stirring. He has already used them in a debate with me elsewhere.
The second argument, what was aired during the reminiscences of the former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, is to the effect that it is all impracticable. The argument is that it is not possible to spatchcock continental press laws into British laws. The right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) said, "Well, yes, the Germans have it but we do not necessarily need to have those Hunnish practices here. It is something that the more disciplined continentals will accept." I shall demonstrate that they can easily be translated into British law and practice.
The third argument is that the Bill is unnecessary. The hon. Members who have opposed the Bill today have suggested that a lot of the people who will complain will write backward-sloping green ink complaints about the Pope and Tesco supermarket checkout clerks. They have suggested that that is the type of trivial complaint that will arise. However, there are many thousands of news items in our newspapers every day for each complaint. Moreover, the fact remains that the complaints that appear do not meet effective redress, for reasons that I shall expand upon in a moment.
The fourth argument is that the Bill is too risky and that if newspapers granted a right of reply they might find themselves open to further legal proceedings. That 603 argument can be disposed of here and now. I should like a qualified privilege extended to the press. That might be the quid pro quo for a Bill such as this. It is wrong that newspapers sometimes rind themselves being sued in the courts when they have given an effective right of reply. I understand that it is only under section 3 of the Defamation Act 1952 that offering a right of reply and a retraction is taken as amelioration if an action for malicious libel is brought. I should like qualified privilege extended to the press so that a newspaper can legitimately say that it is merely reporting what was said by one party about another if the paper is prepared to give a right of reply to the original complainant.
The law as we would wish it to operate in Britain would not be dissimilar from that in West Germany. It would also be similar to that of several other European countries that have had press law on their statute books for more than 100 years, as is the case with France, where it goes back to the early years of the Third Republic. Press law also goes back many years in the Scandinavian countries, Greece and elsewhere. I do not see why the law would be more abused in Britain than seems to be in the case in, for example, West Germany.
In the debate to which I have already referred, when I contested the subject with the hon. and learned Member for Burton, the IPI, which organised the debate, drew evidence from three witnesses from various Continental countries. Herr Soehring said that the number of petitions that were brought to courts in various länder in Germany, was not so significant as to be onerous but demonstrated the level of redress that was available. He gave the example of the Hamburg civil court where there had been 101 petitions for a counter-statement in 1981—the last year for which he had figures. He said that half of them had been successful.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Is it not the case that in Germany there is only the right to object to misstatements of fact?
§ Mr. Whitehead
Of course, there is a right to object to misstatements of fact. I do not believe that that is what the hon. and learned Gentleman wants in British law. I believe that he objects to the Bill in principle. However, if he wants that provision in British law, he should have listened to what his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) said about the proper distinction that can be drawn in clause 1. Moreover, the hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly at liberty to sit on the Standing Committee if he can find time away from the courts to make a simple amendment of those two words.
We can, therefore, call the German legislation in our aid. Can it be seriously argued by anyone that the British press is more balanced, more scrupulous and more fair than that of West Germany? Do we not need this legislation because there already exists such a high level of voluntary restraint on the part of newspaper editors and such a self-denying ordinance on the part of journalists that such legislation is unnecessary? Hon. Members should watch how they behave. The Daily Mail leads the pack with regard to its ethical standards but others follow. It is not, therefore, possible to assert that voluntary restraint exists.
We must consider the attacks that are made on people in the newspapers. I am not here referring to big corporations or powerful people who have their own 604 effective media for reply; I am talking of people who are singled out by a tabloid newspaper and suddenly made the headline of the day and given a notoriety that might last for a lifetime. That is where we need to provide redress. If a tabloid newspaper describes a 12-year-old schoolgirl in Liverpool as, big, black and very, very nasty, what kind of right of reply does she have? What type of right of redress does she have to that newspaper?
We have been told that there would be right of redress if only we extended legal aid to defamation cases. That is nothing like the answer. To begin with, legal aid for such cases would only give some assistance in the first stages of the procedure to people who were uncertain of their rights at law and uncertain as to how they could proceed before the law. I do not believe that lawyers are falling over themselves to take up the Liverpool girl's case. It will take many months of legal contest before the matter comes to court.
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
Does my hon. Friend agree that people in receipt of legal aid face a different hurdle from those who have the money, and that for legal aid to be given the legal aid panel has to be convinced that the recipient is likely to win the case?
§ Mr. Whitehead
I agree with my hon. Friend. The deterrent effects of that would still be extensive.
§ Mr. Whitehead
My hon. Friend misheard me. I was saying that some people have advanced, as an alternative remedy, the extension of legal aid to defamation cases. My point is that that would be insufficient, especially for the people that he, I and others who support the Bill wish to see helped.
I shall now deal with the other route for a remedy that has been suggested by the thoughtful editorials in the serious newspapers recently. They have suggested strengthening the Press Council. Ho, hum. The right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon said that the Royal Commission, the ultimate source of wisdom on matters of the press, decided, having considered rather admiringly the West German model, that it preferred voluntary restraint.
We were told that the Press Council could provide such restraint. We have been told that it is now speeding up its procedures. In its evidence to the Royal Commission, the Press Council made the following remarkable statement:the Secretariat takes special pride in prompt response to communications … most complaints are dealt with within 3 months, many in substantially less time and some take longer".I am one of a group of people currently engaged in a study of the Press Council for a forthcoming book. We have written to many of the people who took their cases to the Press Council. We had to do that because the Press Council reports are so far in arrear. It is only within the past couple of months that the Press Council has produced its reports for the years 1978 and 1979. It is a long and laborious process going through the United Kingdom Press Gazette to extract information about all the other complainants. We have communicated with over 80 of those complainants. The Press Council rejected 40 of the cases, and it might not surprise the House to know that those people were dissatisfied. A good 40 of the remainder whose complaints were upheld eventually by the Press Council said that they were disatisfied by the length of 605 time that had been taken, by the obstructions put in their way, and by the inability to give oral evidence and that there were no proper expenses paid.
The average delay in those complaints was 10 months. The Press Council says that that has now been reduced to six months, but that is still an unconscionable delay. In the case of the Sutcliffe complaints and Mrs. Hill and her admirable redress through the Press Council, of course she had the Queen on her side. The Queen had written to her. It was a great national scandal.
I want to discuss one further case which will illustrate why I do not believe that the Press Council, in its present form, can offer satisfactory redress. The Torbay operatic and dramatic society mounted a children's musical production of "Guys and Dolls'. It was produced by Mrs. Harwood. The local Sunday newspaper devoted a full front page to the production. It said "Storm over Teeny Strip". The story's implication was that this lady had been engaging young children to perform sensual scenes attractive to perverts, and that she was recruiting children for that purpose.
Mrs. Harwood took the case to the Press Council. She did not take legal action against the newspaper. She did not have the means and her husband was dying of cancer. It took 10 months to obtain any redress from the Press Council, when it upheld the complaint. The adjudication was carried by the offending newspaper, but it was buried on an inside page and all the other national papers, which had picked up and carried the story and crucified her in the meantime, did not carry any redress and many of them did not carry the Press Council's adjudication. In such cases there should be greater redress.
The way in which newspapers have dealt with Press Council adjudications, and the open contempt with which the Daily Mail has treated the Press Council time after time, seems to show that there is absolutely no way in which self-denying ordinances and self-restraint will work. The pious editorials we have had from the "heavy" newspapers are rather like prep school headmasters adverting against the dangers of masturbation. All we have had from these newspapers during the past three days will not matter. Up there in the dormitory they are still at it. They will not be prevented by anything that the Press Council, in its present form, can do.
Let us take the case of Mr. Blair Stothard, who complained on behalf of fellow members of the National Union of Teachers about a cartoon in the Daily Mail. The complaint was eventually upheld on the basis that the cartoon was false and highly offensive. Two days following the adjudication, the editor of the Daily Mail devoted two pages to an extravagant attack upon Mr. Stothard and the Press Council. It republished the cartoon in the process.
I do not believe that that is the kind of voluntary self-restraint which these newspapers can be relied upon to have. There are matters in the Bill which need amendment, but that is no reason not to give it a Second Reading. In Committee the critics can take the various points of detail about which they have warned us and which they have properly raised. They can amend the Bill if they wish to do so.
I should prefer a press ombudsman on the Swedish pattern rather than a judicial panel at first instance as set out in the Bill. It is possible to amend the Bill and set up 606 an ombudsman by statute. If we do that, and give the Bill a Second Reading, we shall do what Fleet street, the tabloid editors in particular, have shown over the years that they are not prepared to do—bring proper restraint and decency to the British press.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, East)
I am delighted to have the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). His remarks were, alas, typical of the well-meaning but fundamentally misguided and muddled thinking that has characterised so many of the speeches in support of the Bill today. My enthusiasm to cross swords with him is tempered with regret and astonishment that support for the Bill should come from a distinguished practitioner of journalism and professional broadcasting.
That may not be a bad place to start contemplating the Bill because, like the hon. Members for Derby, North and Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), I have to declare an interest as a journalist and member of the National Union of Journalists. That brings one to the question: what are the media and who are its practitioners? I believe that the media have been badly misrepresented and distorted by many speakers today. They consist not of a handful of Fleet street newspapers and proprietors, but of well over 800 newspapers, 80 television and radio stations and 3,000 periodicals. One must take into account also the new phenomenon of several hundred free sheets, all of which have a journalistic content.
§ Sir Angus Maude
My hon. Friend may have noted that the Bill does not contain exemptions in respect of Scotland and Northern Ireland. I think that he will find that the number of newspapers in the United Kingdom is nearer 1,200 than 800.
§ Mr. Aitken
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for amplifying my point.
The media are a broad church. The 35,000 members of the two journalists' unions are, as the membership of the Members of the House shows, a broad church. The opinions of members of the National Union of Journalists range from those to the Right of the late General Franco to those to the Left of the late Chairman Mao. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) with his great love for Latin tags would know, tot homines quot sententiae. I was going to translate that for the benefit of my fellow old Etonians, but I had better resist that temptation.
There are many opinions among journalists, and one of the absurdities of the speeches today, notably that of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), is that they have sought to portray the media as some kind of tightly knit group of politically motivated misrepresenters who leap out of bed every morning at the crack of a whip from Lord Rothermere or Mr. Rupert Murdoch saying, "Oh Lord, tell us what to distort today." That is a wholly false picture. It takes a paranoic, such as the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-West, to dream up such a nonsensical nightmare. The truth is that we have a pluralist media. Their working population is made up of thousands of ordinary men and women who, like British parliamentarians, relish their freedom and exercise it in the vast majority of cases responsibly and fairly.
The only examples that have been produced today are the hard cases that make bad law, and this Bill would make 607 bad law. The media, like Parliament, are not perfect. Errors of fact, taste and judgment appear from time to time. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) rightly said, they are sometimes repeated with vexing frequency as a result of reliance on the clippings file. One is reminded of Evelyn Waugh's wonderful description of the clippings file as thatCompendium of other journalists' mistakes which newspapers have the audacity to call a library".Warts and all, however, the British media safeguard some essential British freedoms—including, incidentally, the freedom to be partisan and to speak freely and without fear in support of views and opinions that may upset some of the people some of the time.
I believe that Parliament should hesitate for an eternity before seeking to restrict that freedom any further than the existing laws of libel, slander and contempt, the Official Secrets Acts and the Broadcasting Acts already do. If we are indeed to go into the business of placing further restrictions on the freedom of the press and broadcasting, for heaven's sake let us do it by legislative methods that are themselves limited and restricted and not by this all-embracing, muddled, zany Heath Robinson legislative contraption which will cause far worse chaos than the alleged abuses that it seeks to correct. The Bill takes us into Alice-in-Wonderland territory. One thinks of the passage in which the Red Queen insists that, if Alice is to have any breakfast, she must first believe six impossible things. The Bill necessitates belief in at least half a dozen impossible things. In the interests of time, however, I shall highlight just three.
First, impossibly enough, the Bill invites us to make no distinction between factual inaccuracy and distortion. That is the fundamental muddle at the heart of the Bill which, according to clause 1, will be triggered when a person has "reasonable grounds" for considering a report to be "factually inaccurate or distorted". Much has been made of the legislative experience and laws of other countries, but not one of them makes the mistake that the Bill makes and confuses distortion and misrepresentation with factual inaccuracy. That sentence in clause 1 should bring blushes to the cheeks of those who drafted the Bill. It opens an Aladdin's cave for professional protesters and lawyers and a sea of troubles for editors.
Good editors know all about the distinction between fact and editorial opinion. The great editor of The Guardian, C. P. Scott, said:Comment is free, facts are sacred".
§ Mr. Sheerman
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman portrayed himself as a humble journalist. Will he declare also that he has a substantial shareholding in TV-am and other enterprises? May we have a full declaration of interest?
§ Mr. Aitken
I am sorry if I have failed in one way or another to make my overall interests clear. I said that I was a practitioner of journalism. I have interests in newspapers and television. I am a member of the National Union of Journalists. I am related to a deceased press Lord. I could 608 continue ad infinitum. I think that the House understands that I am known to have interests in journalism and television.
§ Mr. Lawrence
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) seems not to know the rules of the House.
§ Mr. Aitken
Good editors understand the distinction between fact and opinion. Sir Colin Coote used to tell young journalists, "If you can't check the facts, don't print." I suspect that the motto of the editor of Private Eye, however, is, "Never check an exciting rumour."
If facts are wrong, of course, they should be corrected, but the expression of opinion in a free society needs no restriction.
The second impossibility is that the Bill completely fails to acknowledge that a right of reply is freely granted almost daily through the good sense of editors. The correspondence columns are full of replies to articles. Corrections of factual mistakes are published.
§ Mr. Aitken
Articles by outside contributors and journalists, whose views conflict with those of other journalists, receive plenty of space. Other publications and broadcasts correct one another with alacrity.
§ Mr. Aitken
Hon. Members who make that comment seem to have forgotten another motto of Fleet street—that dog loves to eat dog. Newspapers never stop reprinting one another's mistakes. The sheer pluralism of the media guarantees some right of reply. We should depend on the good sense of editors and practitioners of journalism and not on Parliament mixing in and creating a new statute.
§ Mr. Whitehead
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when dog eats dog it is not always within the sight and hearing of those who followed the first dog? The only newspaper to take up the case that I cited of the black girl in Liverpool and to offer some redress was the Sunday Times—a different paper aimed at a different audience—so there was no redress for the girl in relation to the people who read the original story.
§ Mr. Aitken
I shall come in a moment to the hon. Gentleman's point, with which I have some sympathy, about the weakness of the Press Council and how we might improve methods of securing greater coverage for replies, although I think it is fair to say that dog eats dog, even if not always in the kennels that the hon. Gentleman would prefer.
The third impossibility of belief in the Bill lies in the failure to understand the practical effects of such legislation on a working newspaper or broadcasting station. The drafting is so broad that it would open the floodgates to allegations of distortion in every sphere, and it grants the concomitant statutory right of reply no every claimant, and even to an "organisation of persons', which I suspect is no more than a code term for political pressure groups.
Under the Bill, the Soviet ambassador will be legally entitled to a right of reply to criticism of the atrocities committed by Russian troops in Afghanistan. At the other 609 end of the scale, a sporting personality, such as Ian Botham, would be legally entitled to demand a right of reply to a cricket report criticising him for throwing away his wicket, bowling a bad line in a test match or dropping a slip catch. Media exposure of the Arthur Scargills and Ken Livingstones, the National Front and the Greenham Common ladies would be doubled. One can imagine an attack by Mr. Scargill on Mr. Webster of the National Front. The National Front would demand a right of reply, Mr. Scargill would decide that the reply was unfair and would demand a right of reply to the reply, the National Front would then demand a re-reply, and so on ad infinitum when in the first place the newspaper merely published what it believed to be a fair account of Mr. Scargill's original speech. The newspapers would need to have 80 rather than 40 pages and to set up new legal departments. The reason why there is not such a large number of complaints in Germany and other countries is that they have not made the mistake that is made in the Bill of confusing misrepresentation and factual inaccuracy.
§ Mr. Proctor
Would it not lead to newspapers producing separate supplements for the right to reply?
§ Mr. Aitken
The Bill insists that some replies should be printed on the same page as the original article, so a supplement would not solve the problem.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East suggested that such excesses might somehow be curbed by making so-called vexatious litigants responsible for their own legal costs. I can only respond to my right hon. and learned Friend, with his great love of quotations, by quoting the Duke of Wellington who, in another context, said:If you believe that, you will believe anything".Already libel actions must be paid for by the losers, but the prosperous practitioners at the libel Bar are scarcely short of work as a result of that restriction.
The Bill is deeply flawed. Despite my criticisms, I am not totally out of sympathy with the Bill, because the debate has been a useful safety valve. It has been a warning to the media that they must do something to put their house in order.
The remarks of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) rightly and fairly highlighted many of the abuses that are causing concern to friends as well as to enemies of the press. If no changes are made to force the press to put its house in order, the day may come when a Bill will give the Press Council more teeth.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) that, as the Press Council does not do a very good job, it should be abandoned, and that we should turn to the new and zany idea of a press ombudsman, as he wished, or to the ideas put forward by the hon. Member for Salford, East. Admittedly the Press Council is a weak sister, but it should be strengthened. It is an independent body staffed by journalists. If it could enforce the prominent publication of its adjudications in the newspapers concerned, if it had an emergency procedure to make those adjudications within two or three days, and if it could compel disclosure of facts material to those adjudications—such as the sums paid to criminals, their associates and their victims—we would go a long way towards remedying many of the abuses that the House has 610 spent time debating today. Such measures are the right way to curb the abuses of media freedom. The Bill is the wrong way.
The Bill is born out of Left-wing prejudice and is given spurious respectability by well-meaning Right-wing legal waffle that has no comprehension of the practical effects on a working newspaper and working journalists. I hope that the Bill will not receive a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)
In rising to support the Bill, I contrast my experience as someone who has been lucky in the ballot with the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), who said that for 27 years he had been comparatively unlucky. I wish him luck. In my short time in the House, I have had a very good draw. I had the satisfaction, although I was opposed by the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) on that occasion, of seeing the enactment of legislation that I introduced on the safety of children in cars, albeit by circuitous means. This week, I have been drawn first in the ballot for private Members' motions, so I seem to have the opposite experience of my hon. Friend.
I support the Bill because hon. Members must, as the guardians of democracy, watch carefully the way in which our social and industrial structure moves. That structure is changing rapidly. What worries me especially is that we are in the midst of an age of revolutionary change in communications. The Bill will be more relevant in protecting the rights of the ordinary, humble and powerless citizen in the years to come with the advent of cable and satellite television, and the plethora of new means of communication. Communication will be more and more important in our lives. For that reason, the right to protect the citizen in a democracy becomes important. Marshall McLuhan had a great deal to say about the hot and cold media. He was right in the sense of how changing media alter people's lives. They also change the nature of democracy.
I appreciate that there are imperfections in the Bill, but I hope that the House will allow it to have a Second Reading and to go forward to Committee. The criticisms that I have heard this morning—except those emanating from vested interests that we well understand—such as those of the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) can be easily cleared up in Committee.
In a democracy the humble citizen about whom one often hears only by accident, can be humiliated and even have his life ruined by a press campaign, or even by a casual derogatory reference by the press. Indeed, the reason for my speaking in this debate results from one incident that is imprinted on my memory. Before I was a Member of the House and when I lived in a different part of the country I knew of a man who lived near me who was found dead on a mountainside lay-by with a shotgun by his side and a fresh copy of the News of the World in his car. That man had committed no crime, nor broken any law, but his life, marriage and family were taken away. He drove to the railway station that Sunday morning and purchased the first edition of News of the World, which was a death warrant to him. He saw the implications and he drove up that lonely road and shot himself. Even on the basis of the right of reply and the redress of the citizen, something has to be done about this kind of tyranny of one the worst sorts of press.
611 The hon. Member for Thanet, East said that some politicians were paranoid. He is right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) is a little paranoid about the media, and some of his criticisms of the press are not always fair. We should have had a tremendous battle in our democracy if we did not owe so much of our liberty, balanced comment and decent reporting of political, social and economic affairs to the BBC and the independent television networks. If it were not for television and radio, Britain would be in a parlous state. The BBC and commercial radio and television are not perfect, but this Bill to provide the right of reply will help to improve them. If there was no radio and television and we had to rely on the printed word of The Sun or the Daily Mail—all the dreadful popular press—to obtain information, what sort of a democracy would we have? Thank God for the BBC and commercial television and radio.
Some of my friends in television and radio are worried about the Bill, but I think they are wrong to worry. If we improve the Bill in Committee we can filter out the writers whom my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) described as writing slanting script in green ink with constant underlining. We all know when we pick up a letter with constant underlining just what sort of a letter it is. But we can filter out the cranks, and if we give those with a legitimate grievance the right of reply that will be very important. Opponents of the Bill will bend over backwards to ridicule it and to say that it will help to publicise Arthur Scargill and Martin Webster. However, that is not so. We must be concerned with the anonymous citizen who is destroyed by the irresponsible use of the power of the press.
The Bill has some drawbacks, but we can improve it in Committee and, moreover, equip Britain with the democracy that it deserves, because our democracy is being nibbled away. We must have a pluralist democracy, but not one in which all the power leans one way. I do not care about political opinions. Sometimes power rests with public corporations and sometimes with big trade unions. I believe in the independent citizen's right to reply, which he does not have at present. That is a dreadful gap in our democracy, and I urge hon. Members to support the Bill.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (East Grinstead)
Whatever criticisms we may have of some practices in the media, I am convinced that this is not the Bill to remedy them. It is badly conceived, and it opens the door to many unpleasant things that will do exactly the opposite of what the Bill's proponents wish. Those matters have been outlined by many of my hon. Friends.
I shall concentrate on broadcasting, but, first, I must make it clear that I oppose the Bill. However, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will show that some of our anxieties about the practices of the press are shared by the Government. The duty of the media to make correct statements, however much we may disagree with the views expressed, is a fair and proper responsibility. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman) made the mistake of assuming that that responsibility must carry over into good taste. The hon. Gentleman may not like The Sun. I cannot imagine that a democracy would exist with one newspaper just like The Sun, but millions 612 of people like to read it. His definition of what is good taste or what he thinks is the right way to treat the news is not someone else's definition.
The hon. Gentleman may regard The Sun as distorting the news. Unfortunately, that aspect comes into the Bill. If a paper is thought to distort the news, it can be hauled before this daft panel. It is a ludicrous way to go about things. I suspect that that is the motive of some people, not necessarily in the House, who welcome such legislation.
We have a press that has every right, if it wishes, to be biased, from the extreme Left to the extreme Right; to be proper and puritanical and at the same time utterly and outrageously vulgar. But to give an absolute right of reply in the situation set out in the Bill goes too far.
I first take the proposal for agreeing to a right of reply over questions of fact. Conflicts over fact in controversial matters can and do arise. How is one to agree whether a right of reply should be granted?
As I said, I wish to concentrate on broadcasting. No one has gone into this in detail and, unfortunately, because of lack of time, I cannot go into too much detail. One or two valuable points need to be raised which are not covered by the Bill. If the Bill were to become an Act, it would make a shambles of the well-established procedures for dealing with editorial practice, accuracy, fairness and impartiality, which I know concern the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun).
I declare an interest. I am a non-executive director of the holding company of London Weekend Television. But all the views that I am expressing are not necessarily those of London Weekend. They are views that I believe are paralleled by people in the broadcasting world, and especially some could be specifically attributed to the BBC.
The long title of the Bill refers to members of the public being giventhe right to reply to allegations made against them … on radio or television".Does that refer only to remarks made by a professional broadcaster, or to remarks mady by a person interviewed on a programme, or to the remarks in reported or recorded speech of some other person? The drafting of the Bill does not make the intention clear. If it refers to all these people, it might be assumed that every thrust in a political debate would prompt the right of reply from anyone who disagreed.
Although it may be possible to determine simple factual inaccuracies and correct them within the three days laid down in the Bill, it may in some cases take longer. A weekend may intervene.
The provision of 10 days for the judicial panel to rule on disputed cases is totally unrealistic. It is likely that a substantial proportion of complaints would be contested. The panel's workload might be heavy. Apart from that, 10 days is inadequate for a programme to organise its evidence and present it to the panel, let alone for the panel properly to consider all the evidence.
How is the right of reply to be presented on television? I worked on a magazine programme that went out five nights a week. Perfectly properly, when the occasion demanded it, we would correct mistakes and we were able to do that in the format of the programme. On the whole, people were satisfied. But many programmes are not part of a regular and continuing series. How is someone to have the right of reply, which would be at the same time and in the same format, when it might be only a one-off 613 programme? Shall we say that the Government of South Africa complained and an offer was made to transmit a whole programme about South Africa. Some people would assume that that was giving way to propaganda by a foreign Government. So we would be back in the same ball game of someone else demanding a right of reply.
I do not think that hon. Members who support the Bill have thought through the complications that it poses for radio and television. In any case, they completely ignore the complexity of such complaints. Some are what is described in the trade as steam complaints—expressions of anger and irritation. I myself have telephoned the duty officer at Broadcasting House and let loose about a particular BBC programme. If satisfaction is not given immediately, complaints are dealt with later by letter or in the postbag of an existing programme.
We know that serious disagreements over facts take place. Where it is accepted that there has been misstatement or inaccuracy, it is corrected in the subsequent edition of the news programme or of the magazine programme. In other instances, it may be possible to deal with such matters in other ways. Where there is a conflict of fact or opinion over a controversial issue of public importance, there may rarely be agreement as to what characterises full and proper redress. It is often extremely difficult to know how to reach agreement on the way in which to correct misunderstanding.
All who work in broadcasting know that there are well established guidelines which try to take into account the many different types of complaints in the forms in which they are made. They are far more complex and far more civilised than anything suggested in the Bill. If the Bill were to become law, it would drive a coach and horses through the very sophisticated guidelines that have already been created.
Editorial responsibility relates as much to editors of magazine programmes and television programmes as to those of news programmes. Editors must take responsibility; they are responsible at law. Editors and producers of programmes must take responsibility themselves. If, instead of imposing that responsibility on them, we remove it or transfer it to an authority or to a judicial panel, editorial responsibility is diminished. It encourages the attitude of mind which causes people to say, "How far can we get away with it?" That, in turn, leads to a battle of wits between the editor and the authority.
If we want to have the sort of responsibility and the standards that we expect from those who feel they have some moral obligation to tell the truth to the public, to check their facts and to have respect for accuracy, we are much more likely to get it if the responsibility is put fairly and squarely on those who practise their particular profession. If the responsibility is put on another body outside, a different attitude of mind may be found among those whose job it is to be responsible editors of newspapers or television programmes.
From time to time during the debate political attitudes have been surfacing. I excuse the proponents of the Bill from that accusation, but I think that I know why the press, on the whole, does not like this sort of legislation. The press believes that it is instigated by those who do not like the way in which the press is constituted.
When the proponents of the Bill refer to experience in other countries, it is worth bearing in mind that in other 614 countries there is not the same sort of feeling about the press shown by the Left wing. It is not the same as the Left wing in this country, which denounces the press day in and day out as monopolistic and capitalistic. It is important to note that in other countries there are many more newspapers and publications of national importance which reflect the views of the Left.
Mr. Denis MacShane, a former president of the National Union of Journalists, is quoted as saying that, although the right of reply exists in most European countries,there is little direct evidence that it works at a much stronger level that a letter of correction about a factual inaccuracy".I gather that he holds that view because papers often fight hard in the courts and deter complainants, in part because the right is hedged with restrictions. I think that Mr. MacShane is right in saying that the fundamental attitude is different on the continent because of the numbers of newspapers and journals which reflect attitudes of the Left.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Sir A. Maude) said in a most interesting speech, there is plenty of feeling on the Left among the unions in favour of their supporting some forms of publication at national level, rather than using the back-door method proposed in the Bill, which would lead inevitably to further legislation restricting the freedom of the press.
Much of the thinking behind the Bill is based on the attitudes of those who have belonged to the trade union movement and are part of the Campaign for Press Freedom. It must be brought to the surface, because it is well known that their view is that the British press is owned and controlled by a handful of multinational corporations. The Campaign for Press Freedom document says:We, the public, have very little choice in what we read … Nor do we have any right of access to their columns".That means the newspaper columns.
That is why the Campaign for Press Freedom has launched the Right of Reply Campaign.It believes that the right of reply should take the form of this Bill.
There is another way of dealing with this matter, and that is to strengthen the Press Council. But, as the campaign says in its document:the process of reform will be along and difficult one; it will certainly take several years and it may not, in the end, succeed."I do not know whether it will take years but, if it is the right route—many hon. Members think that it may be; I think that the Press Council and members of the press should take heed of the strictures which have been made—it is no excuse to say that this is the wider reform that is necessary but that, as it is likely to take some time, we should accept a measure as half-baked as the one before the House today. We are assured by the authors of the Campaign for Press Freedom that one of the ways of ensuring the right of reply is to lookto the trade unionists who are employed on the newspapers in question to help obtain the right of reply. They may often be in a position to raise issues quickly; and they are well placed to draw attention to major omissions or inaccuracies of which editors may not be fully aware.It is only fair to look at some of the examples given by the authors of this pamphlet of how trade unionists in these instances have helped to get the right of reply on which they have insisted. They give four examples.
The first one concerns the threat of a strike. This involved relations during the Grunwick dispute. 615 NATSOPA members employed by the Observer said that they would print an advertisement only if the Grunwick strikers were given the opportunity to put their case to the readers. The threat of the strike secured their objective.
In another example, members of the National Union of Journalists employed on the Hornsey Journal objected to a front page lead story which attacked school caretakers who were on strike in Harringey during the winter of discontent. The strike support committee picketed the office of the Hornsey Journal, and the NUJ chapel demanded that a letter from the support committee be published in the paper as well as a letter from the chapel itself declaring support for the caretakers. Picketing did that and, as a consequence, both letters were published.
Another example refers to a doctor who made artificial insemination available to a lesbian. A group of lesbian mothers occupied the newspaper's offices and secured the right of reply. Occupation did that.
Then there is the full-blooded strike which arose out of an article by David Astor, the former proprietor of the Observer, in which he accused print workers "of sabotaging production". His letter was due to appear in The Times. There was a strike, the letter did not appear, but subsequently it was agreed that the article should be published, provided that the NGA chapel's response was also published.
I shall not go into the merits of whether the papers were fair. I simply draw attention to the fact that if people tell me that I should support a Bill giving the right of reply and that it will be used as an excuse by trade union members to see that it is observed by local newspapers when the examples that I have given involve strikes, picketing and occupation, we are getting into pretty dirty waters. In my view, therefore, members of the press and the House should not be asked to agree to legislation of this kind.
§ Mr. Michael Meacher (Oldham, West)
Perhaps the strength of the arguments for the Bill are seen best in the speech of the Bill's main opponent, as he showed himself to be, the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken). The hon. Gentleman's speech can be seen only as pure pastiche. He seemed to be suggesting that Lord Rothermere and Mr Rupert Murdoch were not biased in their newspapers and that they were enlightened and gave a balanced presentation of events and a statement of all the relevant facts. In his mind, the only purpose of this debate is that it gives a warning to the press that if it does not itself take action, some further Bill will be forthcoming.
I quote the Duke of Wellington back to the hon. Member for Thanet, East: if he really believes that, he will believe anything. Of course, the hon. Gentleman did not tell the House that he was in the class of proprietors. He is a millionaire plutocrat. He owns about 20 per cent. of TV-am. He is the great-nephew of Lord Beaverbrook, who informed the Royal Commission in 1949 that the purpose of owning a newspaper was to disseminate propaganda. In the light of that and in the light of the hon. Gentleman's comments perhaps we should say, in those memorable words, "He would, wouldn't he?" We can perhaps dismis his arguments as a case of special pleading arising from major vested interests.
§ Sir Angus Maude
As the hon. Gentleman obviously assumes that this is a sinister matter, and that the first Lord Beaverbrook and the first Lord Rothermere ran 616 newspapers for propaganda purposes, can he think of a single propaganda campaign that they ran which had the slightest effect on the readers of those newspapers?
§ Mr. Meacher
The right hon. Gentleman underestimates the power of the press over a long period. The press is undoubtedly powerful in influencing the climate of opinion and the general culture. If the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that the first Lord Beaverbrook got it entirely wrong, he would have been spending his millions to no effect, and I. doubt that. If the press is so ineffective, what was Lord Beaverbrook's role in the Cabinet?
I strongly support the Bill and warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) on continuing his pressure for this reform, following the Ten-minute Bill which he introduced about 18 months ago, with this Bill, which has a good chance of being enacted. I support it because whatever else can be said about the British press, surely even its warmest admirers such as the hon. Member for Thanet, East cannot pretend that it is fair and balanced or that the victims of the campaigns that are run from time to time have a fair and equal chance to put their side of the case.
Let me give two topical examples.
§ Mr. Aitken
The hon. Gentleman's main point seems to be that the newspapers are unfair because of great vested interests. Indeed, he referred to my own. My family must own less than one-eightieth or one-ninetieth of all the television shareholdings in Britain today. That is hardly a large vested interest. If the hon. Gentleman reflects carefully I think that he will find that the only abuses about which he is talking are in Fleet street. Why is ownership concentrated in Fleet street? One reason is that, unlike the provincial and regional newspapers which are comparatively easy to start up, Fleet street is prohibitively expensive because the unions refuse to introduce new technologies. That is why to start up a new Sunday Mail, for example, costs about £25 million. That is not the result of vested interest; it is a union conspiracy to prevent new newspapers from starting up.
§ Mr. Meacher
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of a right of reply. He is granted one in the House even if those of his family who have owned newspapers in the past did not by any means offer a right of reply to those whom they attacked. The hon. Gentleman has not denied my point that he is far and away the biggest single shareholder in TV-am. Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that if new technology were introduced overnight or very rapidly Fleet street would no longer be prohibitively expensive for individuals or groups wishing to set up and own a national newspaper? Given the iron laws of Fleet street, it is crucial that those who do not have £20 million to play around with—those other than the hon. Gentleman—should have a right of reply because of the media's importance. They are not simply a commodity for manipulation by immensely wealthy individuals.
I wish to give two topical examples. The only reason that I choose them is that they are topical, and not because they are in any way unusual. First, there is the campaign of vilification against Peter Tatchell, who is standing in the current by-election. It has been hysterical and wholly unfair, as anyone who has met Mr. Tatchell will 617 undoubtedly testify. Yet has he been given any right of reply in the main national newspapers that constantly attack him? He most certainly has not.
The second example is the case of the water workers. They are constantly reviled by the Prime Minister, and that is reported. That is perfectly fair. I accept that everything of importance said by the Prime Minister of the day should be reported. But when have the water workers been invited to give their side of the case in their own words? Their case is simply not being reported—which is exactly what has happened with other industrial disputes for many years. They are angry about that.
I visited a picket line in my constituency yesterday. I learnt more in one hour of talking to my constituents who were on strike than from reading the press during the past four weeks. They are not paid £136 a week, as the Prime Minister continually pretends. A tiny minority do earn a great deal more than that, but the vast majority are paid very much less. I have a typical pay slip from a water worker in my constituency. He takes home £83 a week, which is typical of 80 to 90 per cent. of manual workers in that industry, who take home less than £100 a week. It is a low-pay dispute. But where in the national newspapers do we find any reference to the crucial facts? In their intense frustration, the water workers asked me, with great bitterness, why the truth was not being published. I say to the House, as I said to them, that that is a good question. It goes to the heart of what the Bill is all about.
Three giant corporations control 80 per cent. of the circulation of national daily and Sunday newspapers. What is printed is the angle on events of which they approve—anything of which they disapprove finds it difficult to get a word in edgeways.
Opponents of the Bill will say today, as they have said in other places on other occasions, that it undermines the freedom of the press. But we must ask whose freedom it is. There is untrammelled power for proprietors, through the editors who are regularly hired—or fired if they do not toe the line—to say exactly what they, the proprietors, want however unfair, unreasonable and damaging it may be for those whom they attack. They do so with absolute impunity. That is not freedom, but unbridled licence—which is a wholly different matter.
The media are not a commodity, such as soap, for arbitrary personal manipulation. They are a crucial organ of communication upon which the health of democracy crucially depends. In that context, freedom is only freedom if it is safeguarded from abuse. It must mean freedom of expression for all, not simply for the privileged few. I do not think that anyone, not even those on the Conservative Benches, could claim that that is the current practice. That is why the Bill is needed.
There are countless examples, although I shall give only one or two. In press reports of virtually every industrial dispute over the past 10 or 20 years trade unionists themselves have almost never been given access to explain why they were on strike. Sometimes they are so incensed at being systematically denied an opportunity to put their side of the case and to answer the often untrue allegations that are made against them that they are left with no alternative but to resort to devices such as protesting by blacking printing or distribution of newspapers. No one condones that, and no one believes that that is the right answer to the problem but, equally, 618 it is surely humbug to pretend that freedom of the press means that the most vitriolic calumnies against a particular group of workers must be printed without any right of reply being given. If workers had a right of reply in the media they would not black newspapers. That is the real answer to the problem.
I shall put the issue in quantitative terms and give as an example the treatment of the TUC day of action. Analysis of the coverage in the five tabloids leading up to this event shows 245 column inches of neutral or pro comment and no less than 2,208 column inches of hostile comment. Can anyone seriously deny that there is an overwhelming case for a right of reply when one is faced with a degree of bias of about 10 in one?
Exactly the same applies in other spheres. The peace movement, to which Conservative Members have referred, is certainly receiving a great deal of attention, at present. The Greenham Common peace group is certainly receiving a great deal of attention but it is not getting a fair and balanced treatment in the press. Above all, members of the group are rarely allowed to speak for themselves. That is the crucial point. They are never allowed to speak to camera or on radio or in the press. The same applies to many black groups. They certainly do not have a fair opportunity to have their case put in the press. Indeed, that applies to many feminist or women's groups. Notoriously—I do not want to make any more of this—political personalities, Right as well as Left, are grossly misrepresented by sustained campaigns of vituperation against them and are then denied anything like a fair opportunity to put their side of the case. I think that all hon. Members know that that is true.
It is not true, as has been said, that either the letters columns or the Press Council offer an adequate channel for remedy. Even if there are correspondence columns in newspapers—often there are not—editors may often refuse to publish letters. There are documented cases where that has happened. Even when editors occasionally publish letters as a right of reply, they are much shorter in length than the original article, they are much less prominent than front end news stories and they lose force, above all, by being printed much later in time.
The Press Council is notoriously long-winded in dealing with complaints. It has said that it will try to expedite its procedures, but that has been said before. We wait to see what actually happens. The Press Council has no power to enforce its decisions and it wields an authority which is repeatedly bucked by Fleet Street, as was recently shown most starkly by the cheque-book journalism revelations over the "Ripper" case report. Anyone who read the exchanges over the report will know how ineffective, regrettably, the Press Council is.
The Bill should be strongly supported because it is absolutely necessary for fair treatment in a genuine democracy. I take the points of criticism of the hon. Members for Thanet, East and for East Grinstead (Sir G. Johnson Smith) about the Bill's precise contents. As it stands the Bill is not perfect in all respects. There are problems of how one defines "reasonable grounds" and "distortion", which will need further examination in Committee. The relationship with the libel laws will have to be clarified. Perhaps the machinery can be made more flexible and faster working. Those are valid criticisms.
While there are matters for further examination in Committee, they are not to be taken as a handle for rejecting the Bill completely, which is the way in which 619 some Conservative Members and Fleet street commentators have reacted. Subject to that caveat, I join all those who warmly welcome the Bill and hope fervently that it will be given its Second Reading at 2.30 pm.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)
Like the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher), I am a sponsor of the Bill. I concede that the hon. Gentleman and I approach it from different angles and viewpoints. His speech has underlined the fact that it is important to separate subjective opinions, which we all have, from actual misrepresentations, factual inaccuracies and distortions.
I am pleased to sponsor the Bill. The hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) knows my reservations about it. It is too widely drawn. I am not a lawyer, but I believe that it is too vaguely worded. However, such matters can be resolved in Committee after the House has given the Bill a Second Reading.
Gross unfairnesses can and do take place, and distorted presentations can occur in the press and other parts of the media. I do not doubt that where injustices occur—I do not suggest that they are necessarily frequent; they may be rare—there are sometimes, perhaps usually, remedies at hand for parties who believe that they have reason to feel aggrieved. There are the laws of libel and slander and the remedy of a complaint to the Press Council. Of course, whether that is effective is a matter for debate. There is also the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, to which hon. Members have referred.
Remedies can cost money. They certainly take time. In serious and urgent cases there is a need for a special procedure such as the one that is laid down in the Bill. I shall give an example that relates to a building product and technique connected with cavity wall insulation. The managing director of a company called Megafoam, Mr. David Cameron, brought this matter and his grievance to my attention. Other companies have been adversely affected, too.
There was an item on the ITV programme "News at Ten" on 5 July last year about the insulation of cavity walls by urea formaldehyde foam. More than 1 million homes have been insulated successfully with that product. I have the transcript of the ITV programme. In the introduction it said:A million people who insulated their homes against cold may have done themselves a bad turn.Perhaps it is wrong to give selective quotations from the transcript of the programme, because that is precisely the complaint that I have of the programme. It gave its viewers selective information. Suffice to say that the interviewees in the programme described graphically the fumes that were caused by that product and how they suffered from watering eyes, sore throats, coughing and the bringing up of phlegm. As I see it, UF foam, if not properly applied, can be harmful. Nevertheless, the same may be true of a dentist who makes a filling. If he uses the wrong drill or the wrong filling material, it can be harmful. The whole purpose of the programme seemed to be that any material in any cavity wall is harmful.
I read the script of the programme carefully. It gave some balance, but it was not a fair one. The firm and the material were condemned by innuendo and hearsay. The programme did not put the issue in a reasonable context and it unashamedly played on people's emotions. It 620 unnecessarily engendered fears in at least 1 million households. The result is that a reputable company has been destroyed.
A regional manager of Megafoam, who is a constituent of mine, raised the matter with me. I am not ashamed of raising it today. Perhaps the House would like some facts. In the first half of 1982. the company's turnover was £750,000. The programme appeared at the beginning of the second half of the year—in July. In that second half of the year, the company's turnover dropped dramatically to £250,000. As a result, the receivers were sent in on 1 November and the company was liquidated. I am happy to say that a skeleton new company called Megafoam 2000 has now been formed. As a result of the programme, a work force of 200 people on 5 July has now been reduced to 14. That work force was carrying out work on 150 houses a week before July. Now it is working on only 10. My constituent, Mr. Arthur Parker, who has been associated with the company for nine years, has now been forced to look for employment elsewhere, although he is still indirectly associated with the new company because he is trying to put business its way.
§ Mr. Brinton
I understand the serious consequences of the story that was broadcast in the television programme to which my hon. Friend referred. What possible difference, as a result of that story being broadcast, would the right of reply have made to the terrible consequences for that firm?
§ Mr. Chapman
My hon. Friend has nicely anticipated what I was about to say.
Megafoam had an opportunity to put its views on a Thames Television news programme on 9 September—more than two months later. However, it was able to put its views only in the context of the programme being introduced in terms of wanting UF foam to be banned. Even if that programme was balanced, it reiterated many of the misrepresentations that had already been made.
When the programme was brought to my attention, I wrote to the editor of ITN, Mr. David Nicholas, on 11 August. I had the courtesy of a reply nearly two months later after I had sent a reminder. I shall quote from part of that letter. He said:It was no part of ITN's intention to cause damage to Megafoam … All we did was report certain facts.I am sure that he did so in good faith. My point is that he mentioned only "certain facts". He did not mention the British Industrial Biological Association's views. The House might think that its views would be worthy of consideration. Nor did he mention the United States Environmental Protection Agency report, which might have given a slightly different view of the use of the material in question. Nor did he mention the fact that the product had an Agrément Board certificate or that the British Standards Institute had assured its quality. The programme did not refer to the Select Committee report which dealt with energy conservation in buildings and which was issued a month before and might have shown a different aspect, to the speech of a Minister in the Department of the Environment in the House on 7 May—two months before the programme—or to a report of the Chemical Industries Association on 14 May. The programme was not balanced. There was no right of reply immediately. Megafoam contacted Mr. Nicholas, who 621 presumably had to make a subjective judgment on the programme, and he was the only person who could have given an immediate right of reply.
I believe that the Bill could remedy the injustices that companies using OF foam have suffered during past months. I believe that the Bill is too widely and too vaguely drawn, but that is a matter for the Committee. I hope that the House will consider the serious, though perhaps exceptional, case that I have described. It is a classic example of how occasionally it is urgent, if a distortion has taken place or the balance of a programme has done considerable damage to an individual or company, that there should be a right of reply. I wish the Bill a good passage not just on Second Reading, but throughout all stages.
§ Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)
We have many well-known sayings and one of them isThe pen is mightier than the sword.Some may believe that and some may dispute it. However, it cannot be disputed that those who control the pen are far mightier than the majority of people in this country. It applies to Fleet street, as many hon. Members have pointed out. A class society often means that freedom of the press allows distortions and unfair reporting. That is particularly true during this period of economic crisis. Such reporting is directed at the Labour and trade union movement. I can give many examples. It is often far more serious than a simple misquoting of speeches.
I found it interesting that Afghanistan was mentioned today. I recall going to that country about two years ago as a member of a deputation. Before the deputation even left Great Britain, there was a press campaign; hysteria was built up and generated and certain newspapers were particularly vindictive. I am sorry to say that they were aided and abetted by television and radio. We were vilified, but I suppose that it would have been all right had we gone to Pakistan, Chile or Argentina. In those days, dictators were good guys. The Government had perhaps not heard of Galtieri. When we returned from Afghanistan we were again attacked by the press and the media. There was an interesting incident in which my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Litherland) was gravely deceived by the press. He had taken the photographs of the visit, and it was arranged that they should be given to The Evening Standard. The Evening Standard reneged on the agreement, developed the photographs and distributed them up and down the country. The Evening Standard stole the photographs of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central. He cannot be here today to explain this himself because unfortunately he is ill.
The Evening Standard did not simply make a great deal of money out of the photographs, but it sought to discredit the visit. It printed a photograph with the infamous captionMPs standing in front of the first Russian tank to invade Afghanistan".That was utterly untrue, of course. The tank was the Afghan tank which led the 1978 uprising against the Daoud regime, which, ironically enough, the Soviet Union had supported.
The truth does not seem to matter in these cases. The Tory party subsequently made a poster out of the same 622 photograph and distributed it throughout the universities, so we are dealing with lies, damned lies and Tory propaganda. It seems that any trick will do. Calling us stooges and villains was almost polite by comparison.
The sad thing was that the hysteria obscured what we had to report from our visit—that the Afghan leadership was willing to discuss the withdrawal of Soviet troops. We wanted to see discussions and direct negotiations, but those in charge of the media were clearly not interested in that.
The only newspaper to publish my report verbatim without attacks or distortions was my own local paper, the Leith Gazette. Some may say that that proves how good the press is, but apart from the Left-wing press, that was the only newspaper in the country to publish my report.
Even the Press Association let us down. We agreed to give a press conference and prepared a statement, the release of which was to coincide with the press conference, but the Press Association did not keep its side of the bargain. Perhaps because it was under pressure or for various other reasons, it released the statement prematurely without giving any explanation for its action. That is utterly disgraceful.
We know that newspapers accept letters from individuals who have been wronged, as our delegation certainly was. The Times and the Evening Standard accepted our letter about the so-called Russian tank. That was no problem, but very few people see those letters. People remember the poison on the front page but not what is on the back page, which is so often where the retractions appear.
Interestingly enough, the press did not attack us when we returned to Afghanistan last June, because that visit had a different purpose. We went there to negotiate the release of Ralph Pinder Wilson. He was subsequently freed, but the press remained silent about that. We did not expect praise. We did not expect the press to pat us on the back and say, "Well done, lads." We were glad that Pinder Wilson was released—that was the aim of our visit—but the press said nothing about that. The press always goes for the jugular. It looks for negative aspects in any visit undertaken by Left-wing politicians.
During that visit, Mr. Keshtmand offered to send the Soviet troops home. We reported that fact on our return, but the press would not print it—again, no doubt, for all kinds of reasons.
There was another instance of misreporting last September. When the Prime Minister visited Glasgow, the popular press alleged that I lunged at her and threatened her. I was there, of course, and I said that she was not welcome. I stuck my finger in the air, but there was no threat. Even the Prime Minister admitted that and she issued a statement to that effect which then went to the court.
Unfortunately, it was a no-jury court. South Africa is not the only place to have no-jury courts, because Scotland also has them. A no-jury court found that I was not guilty of those press allegations. Nevertheless, I was fined. I was not guilty of the allegations stated in the various newspapers, but the press did not print an apology. They did not say they were sorry or that they had got the facts wrong. The press regurgitated allegations made in the court that were subsequently thrown out.
§ Mr. Brinton
Has not the hon. Gentleman got matters slightly confused in his recital of his case? The press was 623 reporting, at the time of those events and before the court case, the news as it happened and the allegations as they occurred. It was not distorting anything, but reporting.
§ Mr. Brown
Since the press made up the allegations, I would hardly call it reporting. An important matter that I must add to my story is that the press on that occasion broke the sub judice rule. It reported an incident after I had been charged. That is contrary to normal procedures in Scotland, as I am sure it is in England. My lawyer complained to the procurator fiscal about it as being out of order and contrary to Scottish justice. He made the point perfectly clear. One can appreciate that the Lord Advocate, having initiated the court action against me, was not going to be involved or do anything about it. Fair play and decency had gone out of the window.
The question of contempt of court frequently arises. We have heard about the cases of Fagan, Sutcliffe and Nilsen. The press feels that if it can get away with writing a story by fair means or foul it will write it. It is disgraceful. In the latest incident involving Nilsen, his right to a fair trial could easily be prejudiced.
My problems are not especially important. The problems of those who cannot answer back are far more important, and they have every right to complain. Unfortunately, they cannot do so because of the class society that exists in this country. One can always say "Go to the Press Council", but that is a toothless body. It is not independent and it largely represents the newspaper industry. I have had experience of that body, and it does not work. There is no question of reform. There must be something far more radical if people in this country are to have a right of reply. There can be no real democracy if the media are in the hands of a few, be it in London, New York or Moscow. That is a fact of life. Democracy depends on a truly free press, which we do not have in this country.
This reform is overdue. I say that not for Ron Brown, but for ordinary people outside the House who are fighting the Government because their basic rights are being eroded, their living standards are being destroyed and their jobs are rapidly disappearing. Some may say that that is political. It is political. It is interesting that the Government and the Tory party argue for more and more controls to hold down the trade union movement and the working class, but they do not wish to control their newspapers, which often get facts wrong and distort the truth for their own class interests.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)
Before I turn to the points that I wish to make on behalf of the Government in the debate, it would be remiss of me not to pass one comment on the speech of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown). It is extraordinary that he should be surprised that his views on Russia and his visit to Afghanistan should be considered as a matter of public interest by the press. It is eminently in the public interest that the people of this country should be familiar with the views of the hon. Gentleman and his visit. It is astonishing that he should take exception to the fact that the press saw fit to give prominence to what he and his colleagues got up to.
§ Mr. Mellor
This debate has been most interesting and absorbing. I congratulate the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), after all the years of waiting, on his good fortune in securing this debate. I hope that he feels that the debate has been worth while. I have listened to the whole debate, and it has been vigorous and absorbing. Although there are different legitimate and strongly held opinions in the Chamber, I hope that many of those in the media will read the report of this debate and will see a wide area of agreement, especially about the Press Council.
The Bill is simplicity itself, and I shall say no more about its provisions than the hon. Gentleman said in outlining the Bill. However, the consequences and effect of the Bill are more open to question and problems may arise. I well understand why several hon. Members and the idea of this Bill so attractive, and I understand the points made with his customary eloquence and wit by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith). It gives me no pleasure to disagree with some of his points.
The general idea of giving members of the public the right to reply to inaccurate and distorted reporting in the press and in broadcasts must, at first sight, seem to have much to commend it. We are all aware of the great influence and importance of the media in our society. Sometimes the media concentrate on global events, but on other occasions an individual may be singled out. When that happens, problems can arise. To some individuals, an inaccurate report is no more than simply irritating, but I recognise that in other cases it can have far more damaging consequences and will seriously affect a person's life and standing in the community or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) said, it can affect the fortunes of a company and the livelihoods of hon. Members' constituents;.
Therein lies the Bill's attraction, because it would give a person who claims to be the subject of inaccurate or distorted reporting a statutory right of reply. That is bound to be satisfying because it meets the understandable human instinct to respond when unfairly treated, and it satisfies onlookers who are interested in fair play, a concern which has come through many speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The instinctive reaction from some quarters in favour of the Bill, across the parry divide, is understandable. However, I must tell the House that the Govermnent believe that it would be highly undesirable if the Bill were to become law. It may assist the House if I put one or two points on the record now. It is incumbent upon me not only to point out some of the difficulties of the Bill, as we see it, but to say something about the self-regulation of the media that has evolved over many years and about the proposals for change that are already coming forward.
The freedom of the press, which must be seen as one of the basic features of our democratic society, is fundamental to this debate. Matters are different in totalitarian states, where the press is strictly controlled by the Government. Press freedom in Britain means, rightly, that no special laws apply only to the press and that newspaper editors are free to decide what to publish, save only for the need to observe the laws to which all citizens are subject, including the laws on libel, contempt of court and official secrets. Much thought has been given over the years to how the press should exercise its freedom to publish facts and opinions in a way which does not abuse 625 the freedom of others. No fewer than three Royal Commissions have considered this among other matters since the war.
The Press Council, which has been much discussed in the debate, was set up as a self-regulatory body following recommendations contained in a report of the first of those Royal Commissions, and it redrafted its articles of constitution after the report of the second. Its main objects, as then defined, remain unchanged. They include the preservation of the established freedom of the British press, the maintenance of the character of the British press in accordance with the highest professional and commercial standards and the consideration of complaints about the conduct of the press.
The House will know that, as a result of considering particular complaints, the Press Council periodically lays down principles of conduct which it considers should be observed. These principles, it is also well understood, are not binding on the press and responsibility for what is published rightly remains firmly with newspaper editors. But, although that may appear at first sight to give them untrammelled freedom, the truth is that newspapers have to serve their readers and be responsive to public attitudes to their conduct if they are to compete and survive. In practice, we believe that the influence of the Press Council, combined with the pressure of public opinion, can be potent forces in restraining possible press excesses.
§ Mr. Hattersley
May I press the Minister specifically on those potent forces? What is his reaction to Sir David English's announcement on the front page of the Daily Mail that he does not propose to take any notice of the Press Council and believes that its deliberations are misguided?
§ Mr. Mellor
The Press Council has just published its report. Responses are still coming in. It would be inappropriate for me formally to respond to the situation until we know what it is in the round. [Interruption.] It is no good the right hon. Member laughing. We all know that he is a bit of a wag, but if he were on my side of the Dispatch Box he would have to say exactly the same. We need to consider the report with care before we launch into a statement.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I wish to pursue my waggishness a stage further. I am not asking the Minister to comment on the Press Council report, although the idea that those are matters for deliberation which must have a considered Government ruling is a new doctrine.
How does the Minister react to the view that the Press Council is influential when the editor of a national newspaper says the day after its report is published that he proposes to take no account of it?
§ Mr. Mellor
I want to make my own speech in my own way without the right hon. Gentleman jumping up and down and suggesting points that I should be making before I am ready to make them. I intend to say something about the way in which the Government regard the Press Council and the extent to which we endorse some of the observations in the debate about the way in which the press, if it wishes to retain public confidence in self-regulation, should conduct itself in relation to the Press Council. But I want to arrive at that point in the natural 626 course of events in my speech rather than be pushed into it at this point by the right hon. Gentleman, however persuasive he attempts to be.
We should consider what the Press Council thinks about those important matters and what it has to say about the right of reply. In 1978 the chairman wrote in his annual report:The council has, by a long series of decisions, established the principle that in general any person or organisation identifiably attacked in the columns of a newspaper or perodical is morally entitled to and should be given the opportunity to make a reasonable reply (which may constitute a correction or explanation) whether by letter or statement published editorially. It must be confined to the subject matter of the attack and be reasonable both in content and in length.I do not believe that many hon. Members would dissent from the common sense of what the chairman said. Since that time the council has become concerned about the question of expedition, which has been raised with great clarity and very properly by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The House knows that the council is working towards introducing an expedited procedure as soon as it can. It is concerned about cases where an individual or organisation has put a complaint about inaccurate reporting to a newspaper and has received no satisfaction within the next few days. Two possible alternatives have been identified for dealing with such complaints referred to the Press Council at that stage.
The first would involve speeding up the conciliation procedure, which was itself introduced following the report of the last Royal Commission on the press. The second would be to introduce new arrangements under which a named Press Council official or panel would rule on the complaint and, where appropriate, tell the editor that a reply must be published. The council believes that the introduction of either of those schemes would go a very long way towards meeting the present call for a right of reply. It intends to give wide publicity—I know that the House will agree with this—to whatever arrangements are eventually introduced.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
The Minister says that the new method will enable the Press Council to tell an editor that a reply must be printed. Is that right? I understand that the Press Council has no such power. That is our main objection to the Press Council.
§ Mr. Mellor
The Press Council cannot compel publication but it can expedite the procedure whereby it makes its judgment. Of course, there is no ministerial responsibility as such for the Press Council, but it is obviously right to discuss with the Press Council the latest stage of its thinking, so that I can inform the House of it.
In the debate, many examples have been quoted of occasions when it was suggested, with some justification, that the Press Council's judgments have not been taken and acted upon in the way that many hon. Members would wish. I suggest that that must be very much the exception and not the general rule. The hon. Gentleman will see from the reports of the Press Council that its judgments are adhered to pretty well by the press, as they should be, given that the council is a self-regulatory body consisting in the main of professional journalists.
Broadcasting is different because the framework is already set by public authorities with statutory powers and duties, but within that framework the broadcasting authorities have full responsibility for maintaining the 627 standard of their programmes. The Government, like successive previous Governments, follow a policy of not interfering in programme decisions, and the broadcasting authorities alone are answerable for them. In that respect we depart from experience in certain continental countries, but in this case, as in the other, I suspect that we are right and they are wrong. The BBC and the IBA take these matters seriously. They have drawn up their own guidelines on the right of reply.
The IBA's guidelines recognise that, despite all efforts made by the programme companies and itself to observe fairness, accuracy and due impartiality, there may still be occasions when an individual or organisation is misrepresented in a programme. Its guidelines call for corrections of factual errors to be broadcast within the programme itself, where that can be done, or as soon as sensibly possible after the original error.
Where the call for a right of reply is made not to correct a factual error but on the ground that a programme as a whole or in part has been misleading and unfair in a more general sense, the guidelines envisage consultation between the authority and the programme company concerned to decide whether the opportunity for reply should be given and, if so, in what form.
The BBC's guidelines similarly provide that where a factual error is substantiated a correction should be made within the programme concerned or at some other suitable programme junction, and that complaints of distortion, such as might occur if a contribution is mis-edited, should also be redressed within the offending programmes.
I should like to say a word about the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. A person who claims to have been unfairly or unjustly treated in a broadcast programme now has another and quite separate outlet, leaving on one side the company's own guidelines, if he does not get satisfaction from the broadcasters themselves. He can make his complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which was set up by the House in the Broadcasting Act 1980. The commission acts as an independent body to consider and adjudicate upon complaints and upon complaints of unwarranted infringement of privacy in programmes or in their preparation. This does not provide a remedy such as the Bill seeks, but the commission can require its adjudications to be published. The existence of the commission provides a remedy for members of the public, including businesses, who are treated unfairly in broadcasts. I submit that it would be incompatible with these recently introduced arrangements to consider introducing a statutory right of reply as well.
In our view, the introduction of a statutory right of reply would cut across the arrangements under which the press and broadcasting work. It is said that the suggestion for change is backed up by European precedents. However, the proposal that there should be a legal right of reply is not new. It has been considered by a number of independent bodies over a number of years, as have the European precedents.
I cite as an example the Royal Commission on the press which reported in 1977 and of which, much as I admire him, the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) was unnecessarily dismissive. The body was constituted by a Labour Government, and its report was widely read and much approved of at the time.
628 After weighing arguments for and against such a right and taking account of practices in other countries, the Royal Commission concluded:the press should not be subjected to a special regime of law, and … it should neither have special privileges nor labour under special disadvantages compared with the ordinary citizen. That argues against a special measure for ensuring a right of reply. We prefer a non-legal method of securing corrections.That was the view of the Royal Commission, and the Government agree with that view.
The existence of a legal right of reply in a number of European countries—a fact to which a number of hon. Members alluded—was known to the Royal Commission and taken into account by it. Such information as we have demonstrates that most continental legislation on the subject originated in the 19th century or early in this century and is contained in measures which also guarantee the freedom of the press. Our press and broadcasting systems have evolved along different lines, and we do not have the continental tradition of a written constitution.
If we look in detail at precisely what is provided for in the European rules, which I do not have time to quote in detail, we see that they are quite different in their width and in their procedures from those in the Bill. They are so radically different that it is not enough to say that the Bill can be changed in Committee. Some of the flaws are fundamental and, from the Government's viewpoint, vitiate the whole enterprise.
§ Mr. Whitehead
The Minister should have quoted the next paragraph of the Royal Commission's report. It said that it recommendedthat … the Press Council should involve itself actively in obtaining the publication as soon as practicable of counter-statements on behalf of people who have been criticised unfairly on inaccurate information, using the criteria of equal prominence and space, and limiting an editor's right of refusal on legal grounds.The central theme of the debate is that it has riot been found possible to do that.
§ Mr. Mellor
I have said what the Press Council is proposing to do. In an area which is so fundamentally important to our society, I believe that there can be no advantage in pressing ahead until we are quite satisfied that the Press Council is not able to deal with these matters properly. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I should need a lot more persuading of that fact before I was driven to a conclusion that had fundamental implications for the continued existence of a free society.
The Faulks committee on defamation, which reported in 1975, also considered the possibility of a right of reply but came to the conclusion that, while that might be a vital remedy in countries which did not have a defamation law like ours and where substantial sums by way of damages were rare, in these circumstances in this country a general statutory right of reply backed by criminal sanctions was undesirable, and it did not recommend that one should be introduced.
While it is right to say that the Bill has drawn support from both sides of the House and that some excellent speeches have been made in support of parts of it—I do not think that any of my right hon. and hon. Friends accepted the Bill as it stood—it would be wrong not to recognise that the Bill has essentially been given birth by the national executive committee of the Labour Party. The hon. Member for Salford, East recognises that and it would be wrong of me not to point out that some Labour 629 Members who support the measure are inimical to the existing arrangements of a free press and would like to undermine them—[Interruption.] I am not referring to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead). The paranoid wing of the Labour Party is represented by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). I am sorry that neither is in his place—a fault for which I am not responsible.
It might help the House if I were to qote from the national executive committee's report on this matter. It said:In short, the new kind of owners (for example, Lord Matthews of Express Newspapers, or Mr. Roland Rowland of the Observer and the Outram Group) are employers on a large scale whose overriding interest is the development of their industrial and commercial conglomerates: they represent a trend that could further inhibit independent editorial inquiry and comment in important economic, social and political areas at home and abroad and exacerbate the present subjective coverage of Labour party and trade union activities and policies, while at the same time promoting the image of big business as a wholly benevolent element in society".That is a wholly false and nonsensical analysis of the present situation. Take the reference to Mr. Rowland of The Observer. The idea of The Observer as a Tory sheet inimical to the Labour party is nonsense. The image of Mr. Rowland sitting behind Mr. Trelford, Mr. Alan Watkins or Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien and smacking them round the head every time they say anything detrimental to capitalism or handing them a bottle of Napolean brandy every time they coin some favourable phrase about some current magnate or other is paranoia writ large. I am glad that we have had some examples of that today, or the debate would have been sadly lacking in an important point that worries so many—the attitude of the far Left today towards the press. They do not mind, in documents such as London Labour Briefing and others, making the most disgraceful allegations against the police, coroners and a whole range of other people in society, but they do not like to take it themselves.
It is difficult to understand the allegation that all the mass circulation papers support the Conservative party, because that is manifestly not the case. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) in one of his more amusing passages, was critical of the award of knighthoods to editors. I seem to remember that it was the Government of which he was a Member that turned the Daily Mirror into the house journal of the other place.
§ Mr. Mellor
I shall give way when I have finished this point.
The Morning Star has been drawn into this. It is not the fault of anyone other than the British people that the Morning Star is not a mass circulation newspaper. It is not a mass circulation newspaper because the British people are wise enough not to buy it. It has nothing to do with some great press conspiracy against the Labour party.
§ Mr. Hattersley
I was wrong to intervene and thus treat this passage in the Minister's speech as if it were serious. I do so on behalf of two groups of friends whom he has already treated badly — first, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) and 630 my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher). They are not here today and the Minister said that that was not his fault. But it is entirely his fault since he said that he would speak earlier and then postponed his speech at the request of hon. Members.
Secondly, the Minister made an allegation about Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd. That group never took awards for practising members of the editorial staff. If the hon. Gentleman looked at more of my columns than the one he has beside him he would see that of all the awards to newspapers by various Governments this is the first time in the history of Fleet street that practising editors have received favours from a Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Mellor
It requires a more subtle mind than mine to recognise the right hon. Gentleman's distinction. It is a rather self-serving distinction, which is not altogether untypical. The right hon. Gentleman had a pre-emptive strike on the subject of his article in Punch. I do not know whether other hon. Members have seen the article, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a publication to browse through that does not contain an article by the right hon. Gentleman. He said in Punch:His Bill is generally impracticable and wholly desirable, probably unworkable and certainly essential.I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman's legitimate desire to be a latter-day Hazlitt, or the stout man's Oscar Wilde, and his genuine desire to further his career as an essayist, has overcome the caution and sense of responsibility that we expect of him if we are to take him seriously as someone who hopes to be Home Secretary within the next few months. It is difficult for those of us charged with the responsibility of government to take such a sanguine view, as he did in his article and his speech, of what are essentially impracticable proposals.
I recognise that those of us who reject the way of statutory rights and obligations have a duty to ensure that other remedies are effective. Some harsh words have been said today, and rightly so, about the reluctance of some editors to admit their mistakes and put matters right, and also about the adequacy of Press Council procedures and its means of securing compliance. But against that must be set evidence of the Press Council's current efforts to improve procedures and remedies.
I am in no sense complacent about the matter, nor do I pretend that everything in the garden is lovely. I am sure that I speak for the whole House in expressing the hope that today's debate will have delivered to both the media and the Press Council a clear message of widespread dissatisfaction and, at least, the expectation that matters will be improved.
Some imperfections and unhappy experiences are the price that must be paid for maintaining free institutions, because freedom must include the freedom occasionally to get things wrong and to make a mess of things. But if the public lose confidence in the self-regulating mechanisms of powerful free institutions, the demand for external statutory control may become overwhelming.
If the media reject—rightly, in my view—the demand for statutory control, they must recognise and act on the need to put their house in better order voluntarily. That is the message of today's debate. I endorse it warmly, while advising the House not to give a Second Reading to a misconceived and flawed Bill.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
I remind the House that the debate must end at 2.30 pm. 631 Many hon. Members wishing to speak have been in the Chamber throughout the debate. I ask hon. Members to be brief in their comments.
§ 2.3 pm
§ Mr. Arthur Davidson (Accrington)
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) and to Conservative Members for not being in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate, but I had to attend to constituency matters.
The Minister began and ended his speech well. Perhaps he remembered something that might take place within a few months, because he clearly felt that he had to do a bit of a knockabout to raise the spirits of his party. I do not complain about that. However, his was not a serious contribution to an essentially serious matter.
I support the Bill, although I regret doing so. Hon. Members may know that I spent a great deal of my life as a Fleet street lawyer. During the years I have argued both inside and outside this House, sometimes idiosyncratically, for greater press freedom. I have argued for the liberalisation of the libel laws, as has the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken). I have warned about the dangers to press freedom of the Official Secrets Act, and I have argued about the restrictive nature of the laws of contempt. These things are in some ways still an impediment to the proper dissemination of news. It is with regret, therefore, that I have come to the conclusion that a law is needed not to restrict the freedom of the press—far from it—but to help to ensure that greater accuracy and therefore truth is disseminated to the public.
I do not believe that newspapers are in the business of providing only biased propaganda. They have a duty to inform and to educate. If the public feel, as I think they do, that there is some need for legislation, it is because of their belief that the popular press—it is mainly the popular press—has abused its power and position.
Sadly, as has been pointed out, the Press Council, despite its good intentions, has proved inadequate to deal with abuse and to protect the public. The recent findings of the Press Council in the Yorkshire "Ripper" case are a stark example of what the public find distasteful about some journalistic practices. The Press Council's report tells a storyof harassment, intrusion, preying on private grief, gross prejudice to the course of justice, tampering with witnesses, the scattering of money to the families and friends of a criminal, and then of lies by editors in an attempt to cover it up.Those are not my words. I wish I had the ability to use language in that way. Those are the words of The Economist.
I can never understand the obsession of newspaper editors to refuse to admit that they are sometimes wrong. If a public inquiry castigated a Minister's conduct, behaviour or judgment and that Minister ignored the committee's findings, the press would howl and bay at him and say that the only proper course would be for him to apologise or to resign. Yet newspapers seem to believe that they have no responsibility to accept that they may be wrong and that the judgment on them by a body on which there are journalists has no validity because they, the newspapers, are attacked.
It is terrible for an individual to be misrepresented in the press. Many misrepresentations fall short of enabling the victim to bring libel proceedings. Defamation proceedings are lengthy and expensive. Possibly the time 632 has come—although I have never advocated it in the past—to ensure that legal a id is provided for those wishing to bring libel actions. However, a newspaper can argue, haggle and dispute, and eventually, even if the right of reply is given to the individual, the public by and large have forgotten what the issue was and the unfortunate victim does not feel at all satisfied.
The Defamation Act 1952 provides for a right of reply. The newspapers welcome it. It is convenient for them as a semi-defence in any subsequent proceedings. However, no one suggests that that is an intrusion into the freedom of the press and that the basis of our free institutions will collapse because of it. I do not think that a right of reply —that at the earliest opportunity, if there has been a distortion or misrepresentation of fact, the press should say so—is a violation of our basic freedoms. It is a defence of freedom, because it enables a fact to be revealed if an untruth has come out.
The Minister stated—there is something in what he said—that there was a disposition on the part of the Press Council to have some teeth to enforce its judgments and to ensure that the press properly publicised any adverse findings—if necessary on the front page. However, I believe that the press will resist that as much as it will resist the Bill. If the press is not prepared to allow some sort of regulation to come in, it will lay itself open to legislation that will be far more severe than this Bill. I do not suggest that the only way to do it is the way set out in the Bill. There are imperfections. However, they can be sorted out in Committee.
If my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East had not persisted in his endeavours to ensure that the issue of the right of reply was made public, nothing would have been done. The press would be content with the present position.
For those reasons, I hope that the Bill will at least receive a Second Reading.
§ Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)
I welcome the opportunity to make a contribution to this important debate. I am always suspicious of what I regard as Socialist-inspired legislation, because in my experience, which is the experience of anyone who is a student of what happens on the political scene, it usually has the opposite effect to what is intended. The Bill is a pious hope, which will probably do more damage than good.
I hope that we all agree that freedom of speech is sacred. Parliament should intervene only when the liberty of one person infringes the liberty of another. We are discussing whether a law should be enacted to limit the freedom of the press to refuse a right of reply. The press will argue with merit that the freedom of the press is an essential feature of a true democracy; not an end in itself but a means to an end—a free society. I agree with that. However inconvenient, embarrassing or intrusive that freedom is, we should preserve it, unhampered by legislative controls.
However, as has been illustrated today, we must recognise that the freedom of the press gives great power to those who wield it. Therefore, they must resist the temptation to abuse that power. Abuse of power is not only conscious; it is more often seen as indifference to the feelings of others and carelessness about the consequences 633 of what is written or broadcast. Freedom to publish fearlessly should not be regarded by media leaders as a licence to ride ruthlessly over the liberties of others.
Some aspects of the media cause anxiety to many people, as has been shown during the debate: invasion of privacy, harassment, campaigns of vilification which straddle the law of libel, cheque-book journalism and all the rest which have been manifest recently. They all illustrate fundamental problems which must be resolved soon.
I have no argument with journalists who wish to speculate, criticise, probe, lampoon, ridicule, attack or support this policy or that, or this or that politician or breed. Those who dislike the heat in the political arena—I pick up the point made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley)—should get out of the kitchen, and certainly the House.
The press will always be criticised and, possibly like politicians, will never be loved. Journalists might be comforted by the fact that if all shades of political opinion believe that they are hard done by, the press probably has it about right. My tolerance expires when individuals and institutions are subjected to campaigns of vilification brought about by the selection of facts, misinformation, stolen information and the word of those whose motives may be vicious and mendacious and whose co-operation might have been purchased. I believe that editors should strive to introduce into this type of material balancing comment and reply from those attacked, or serious injustice can and does follow.
If editors deny the right to answer such attacks to those individuals or corporate bodies involved, they deny the very freedom that they seek to protect. If editors deny the right of reply, they are inferior to any man or institution whose rights they trample underfoot. They should, in equity and conscience, give an adequate right of reply or be compelled to do so by the Press Council. The stock answer of those in the media who make their living staring at the view on the other side of the libel boundary is, "If we cross the line, sue us." I shall deal later with the question why the courts are not a practical source of redress to protect the individual from injustice by the media.
At present, if a biased article is based on incomplete, inaccurate, selective data, there is no right of reply, despite the theory of freedom of speech. Moreover, powerful men in the media are not usually prepared to change their view of a topic once decided or to admit that they may have it wrong.
However, the media men need to sell newspapers or to entice viewers to watch this, not that, channel. In my view, that is entirely healthy. To balance their commercial profit motives with natural justice, they have to be trusted to present a fair picture, which can of course reduce a scorching story to that of the commonplace. I wish to give three examples of individuals and institutions who had no right of reply being strongly criticised by the media. I do not know the rights or wrongs of each case. The point that I am making is that they had no right of reply to the powerful, disruptive campaigns waged against them. I have no connection with any of these organisations or individuals, nor am I necessarily a supporter of their views.
634 These examples stand out when one learns of the circumstances surrounding a recent story and how it was dealt with. Human nature being what it is, the freedom of the press is generally approved when it takes liberties with the other fellow and leaves us alone. These are examples of inequity, which could have been rectified by the right of reply. There are dozens of others. In each of these cases reputations may have been sacrificed for a profitable Roman holiday for the media. In all cases the lions had their day and the Christians little opportunity to retaliate.
The charity Stable Lads Welfare Trust was taken apart by the BBC in 40 minutes on 9 December. The charity, which was fiercely criticised, later protested that the view given on the programme of its activities was manifestly unjust. Those in charge of the organisation protested that the only right of reply that they were offered was an edited 95-second slot in a 40-minute programme.
There was a subsequent programme about Lloyd's in the midst of its troubles. The people there were strongly criticised. I understand that many of them would have wished for an adequate opportunity to make a balancing comment.
The third example relates to Sir Walter Marshall, a public servant of 25 years' standing, who, in his view, was unfairly criticised in the television programme "World in Action". He felt that he had an insufficient right of reply. He believed that the way in which the programme was put together gave an utterly unwarranted slant to various matters upon which he would have liked to comment.
For the editors or producers to have given a right of reply in those cases to straighten the record, to correct the bias, to put complex issues into context, to correct major inaccuracies and to examine critically the motives and credentials of those who were involved would have spoilt the exercise of vilification which was intended, as I understand the parlance, to put bottoms on seats and pay in the pockets of the reporters.
None of those people or bodies has access to the column inches of national newspapers or television time. They are the preserve of editors who select the reporters. That is the body with the real power of freedom of speech in Britain. Although in theory those who are attacked have freedom to reply, in practice they are denied the column inches, television time, circulation and credibility which is possessed by a television company or newspaper. The freedom of speech for those who are attacked remains a theory, not a reality.
Only the rich have real recourse to the law to correct biased articles which, in their view, may constitute libel. That is why it is important for editors to grant a right of reply. Big newspapers, television companies and even small magazines carry expensive insurance cover for libel damages that may be awarded against them. They can also afford to employ blue chip lawyers—the costliest of QCs—so that they can usually face down someone who is tempted to sue. With fancy footwork, a case can be delayed for up to five years, during which time legal costs mount up. The preparation of a case alone can cost thousands of pounds. If a case goes live, the costs soar as barristers and their juniors take their fees. For a long case that takes years, and excluding an appeal, tens of thousands of pounds are required.
There is another problem. If a person gets help from an employer or an outside body, all the financial assistance will be taxable on him—it will be income taxable up to 60 per cent. If a person receives assistance from friends, it is 635 likely that capital transfer tax will be payable. If a litigant sues a newspaper or television company, he will find that his adversary's costs are paid by an insurance company. If his adversary is not insured, the adversary's costs will be tax deductible. In other words, when David takes on Goliath, David has to pay tax on the gift of his sling.
Let us assume that Mr. X is not daunted by all that, wins, and is awarded damages against a newspaper or television company. He will get his damages clear, but if the judge makes no order about costs, which is what happens in the worst cases, so one does not get all one's cost back, Mr. X will have to carry his own costs. If Mr. X loses, the judge may award the defendant's costs against him in addition to his own. Even if Mr. X wins the defendant could take the case to appeal. One can therefore double the costs involved and Mr. X faces financial ruin. Even if he won, the appeal without costs could ruin him.
Then, of course, there comes the mud slinging. After two years, the public have long since forgetten the original article. The libel is repeated in open court, and there will be a few more allegations besides. Although Mr. X is the one who is suing, the defendant's counsel will have the major job of destroying Mr. X's reputation as a politician, business man or whatever in the interests of his client, if only to discourage others from suing on other occasions. There are cases where people enter litigation, win their case, and emerge with smeared reputations. In court, all allegations can be printed publicly and do not have to be substantiated.
In those cases, only the lawyers and barristers win. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate all my right hon. and hon. and learned Friends on having the foresight to choose their profession. They will surely inherit the earth. If not, they will make a large profit on the conveyancing. The faults of bias and imbalance should be rectified if possible, like Lloyd's, from the media. I support self-regulation as opposed to statutory controls.
I presume to suggest that the Press Council's powers should be reinforced to enable it to control its membership. At the moment, the Press Council has insufficient authority and the worst of all worlds—enough to have its authority flouted and its nose tweaked publicly, but not enough to impose proper checks. Increased powers might include forced publication of its findings with prominence equal to that of the offending article. It should also be able to establish the payments made to informers and collaborators and from whom they came, and to ascertain the techniques used by journalists to obtain stories.
I end with an appeal to the media. When indulging in exercises against individuals or corporations, whoever they may be, in the guise of a moral crusade, they should not let their subjective stance or profit motives cloud their judgment. The responsibilities carried by a free press should be regarded as the burden they are. It is insufficient in equity to live on the line between sensationalism and libel. To do so is to abuse the very powers and freedom that they purport to cherish.
I believe in self-regulation, and I hope that the media will look to their practices. Otherwise, the enemies of a free press, of whom I am not one, will be tempted to do it themselves. I remind the media of Mark Twain's words:We write frankly and feely but then we 'modify' before we print.Perhaps our press will do the same.
636 I hope that the House will not support the Bill. I believe that self-regulation is the way forward, but the media must take urgent steps or others may have to do so for them.
§ Mr. Frank Allaun
With the leave of the House. I should like to use the last five minutes to deal with the debate. There have been excellent contributions from both sides. I wish simply to stress certain points that have been confirmed across the political divide.
First, the Bill is confined to misstatements of fact. However much hon. Members may object to the views of newspapers, that is not involved in this debate, as the Bill is confined entirely to the accuracy of facts.
Secondly, it has been suggested that the proposed legislation is impractical. In one bizarre comment, it was referred to as a zany Heath Robinson contraption. I repeat that it is working successfully in Canada, West Germany, France, Denmark and elsewhere.
The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir Derek Walker-Smith) powerfully supported the Bill, although he had reservations on one point. I can see the validity of his argument and I should certainly not be averse to amending that or other details in Committee.
As for libel actions, I repeat that most people cannot afford them and that legal aid is not available.
The Minister referred to the Press Council and to a new step but when, with reference to the statement by the editor of Daily Mail that he would not respect the decisions of the Press Council, I asked the Minister whether the Press Council would have the power to require a newspaper to make corrections, his answer was that it would not.
The Bill is no panacea. It is a limited measure of reform because the main bias in the press is achieved not by telling lies but by selection. Newspaper chief subs have on their desks a little spike. If they like an item, it can be the front page splash. If they do not, it can be tucked away in two lines at the bottom of column 9 where no one wi.1 read it. If they really do not like it, they will spike it and that will be the end of it.
If hon. Members agree with the purpose and the principle of the Bill, I ask them to vote for it. Amendments of detail can be made in Committee. It is a great honour for me to commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 90, Noes 7.637
|Division No. 72]||[2.30 pm|
|Allaun, Frank||Carter-Jones, Lewis|
|Alton, David||Chapman, Sydney|
|Anderson, Donald||Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Cohen, Stanley|
|Atkinson, N. (H'gey,)||Conlan, Bernard|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Cook, Robin F.|
|Benyon, W. (Buckingham)||Cox, T. (W'dsw'th, Toot'g)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Dalyell, Tam|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Davidson, Arthur|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon A. (M'b'ro)||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)|
|Brown, Ronald W. (H'ckn'y S)||Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Davis, Terry (B'ham, Stechf'd)|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Deakins, Eric|
|Dobson, Frank||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Dubs, Alfred||Pitt, William Henry|
|Edwards, R. (W'hampt'n S E)||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|English, Michael||Prescott, John|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||Price, C. (Lewisham W)|
|Foster, Derek||Race, Reg|
|Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)||Richardson, Jo|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Freud, Clement||Sheerman, Barry|
|Ginsburg, David||Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)|
|Graham, Ted||Silverman, Julius|
|Greenway, Harry||Skinner, Dennis|
|Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)||Soley, Clive|
|Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith||Spearing, Nigel|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Stallard, A. W.|
|Huckfield, Les||Stoddart, David|
|Jay, Rt Hon Douglas||Strang, Gavin|
|Johnson, James (Hull West)||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Kerr, Russell||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Leighton, Ronald||Tilley, John|
|McKelvey, William||Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)|
|McNamara, Kevin||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D.|
|McWilliam, John||Warden, Gareth|
|Maynard, Miss Joan||Wells, Bowen|
|Meacher, Michael||Welsh, Michael|
|Mikardo, Ian||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Morton, George||Williams, Rt Hon A. (S'sea W)|
|Moyle, Rt Hon Roland||Woodall, Alec|
|Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Newens, Stanley||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|O'Halloran, Michael||Mr. Bob Cryer and|
|Parker, John||Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Pitt, William Henry|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Goodhew, Sir Victor||Mr. K. Harvey Proctor and|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Mr. Ivan Lawrence.|
|Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus|
§ Whereupon MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No. 31 (Majority for Closure).
§ It being after half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed upon Friday 25 February.
§ Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am not querying your decision about the 97 hon. Members who voted, but may I ask a question? Because there were four tellers, a total of 101 hon. Members went through the Lobbies. Can you say whether the four hon. Members who are recorded as tellers are part of the vote?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
I am sorry to have to remind the hon. Gentleman of the Standing Order. The requirement is for 100 hon. Members voting in the majority.