HC Deb 05 June 1984 vol 61 cc169-71 4.12 pm
Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the declaration in any newspaper story, published as a result of payments other than to a journalist or regular contributor, for the rights to such stories, of the amount paid for those rights and the names of those to whom payment was made.

Chequebook journalism has caused many people a great deal of anxiety. Many journalists are unhappy about it and the National Union of Journalists has condemned the practice. So has the Press Council and the House on previous occasions. My Bill does not make chequebook journalism illegal but it is intended to give the public the right to know when it occurs—when sums of money are paid to people other than journalists or regular contributors in return for information that can be the basis of a news item. My Bill will reveal what goes on in an attempt to make the practice less prevalent. If newspapers are obliged to reveal when they have paid large sums of money in the circumstances described, they might well be embarrassed and therefore desist.

We do not know how often chequebook journalism takes place because, by definition, most such transactions take place in secret and the resulting stories masquerade as news items rather than stories under the name of the person from whom the information was obtained. I understand from talking to journalists in Fleet street that the practice has become so prevalent that even members of the public assume that a fairly large sum of money will be paid to them if they have a story. I shall give examples of four types of chequebook journalism, each of which is to be condemned.

The first concerns payment being made to witnesses or people who are likely to become witnesses in court proceedings. Such payments almost inevitably interfere with the course of justice. That was perceived by the Press Council as a matter of importance as long ago as 1966 when, in a declaration of principle, it said: No payment or offer of payment should be made by a newspaper to any person known or reasonably expected to be a witness in criminal proceedings already begun in exchange for any story or information in connection with the proceedings until they have been concluded. There are several well publicised cases of sums being offered in such circumstances. In the Jeremy Thorpe case, payment was offered to a material witness and the amount to be paid depended on whether Jeremy Thorpe was found guilty. In the event, he was acquitted, but the principle of a witness having an interest in the outcome of the case is one that we must all deplore. More recently, in the Stephen Waldorf shooting incident, payments were made, as far as we can establish, to people who might have been witnesses in one of the series of legal actions that ensued.

The second type of chequebook journalism concerns payment to criminals or people associated with them. In January 1983 the Press Council said: Just as it is wrong that the evildoer should benefit from his crime so it is wrong that persons associated with the criminal should derive financial benefit from trading on that association. That statement was provoked by the Sutcliffe, or Yorkshire Ripper, case as payments were apparently made to people associated with him in return for stories.

The third form of chequebook journalism concerns not criminal activities but payments made by newspapers in return for which they are given a monopoly on the story. The most recent example concerns the birth of the quads. The story was suppressed for four days because the newspaper that had bought monopoly rights to the story did not want the news item revealed. That is an example of the public having the right to be given information and it being wrong that a newspaper should achieve a monopoly and mislead the public.

Another recent example concerns Zola Budd. I understand that one newspaper has bought the monopoly on stories on her, an athlete of considerable interest to the public. Right hon. and hon. Members who saw the first day of an athletics meeting at which Zola Budd competed will have noticed that, when she won a heat, she was immediately surrounded by what can only be called "heavies" who escorted her away so that she could talk to nobody—not even her fellow competitors. I am happy to say that that practice, to judge from the television coverage, ceased the following day. Many local newspapers strongly resent the nationals stepping in and getting a monopoly of a story, thereby denying the local newspaper the chance to publish it.

My fourth category of objection concerns what I suppose might be called sexual scandals, when a newspaper pays a significant sum of money to a person involved in a sexual scandal so that information will be revealed about the other person in the episode, presumably only when the other person is a national figure. The public should have the right to know that sums of money have been paid to an individual in return for such a story.

Equally regrettable is the fact that there are occasions when the police themselves have been the persons who have sold stories to newspapers because as a result of their privileged position they have had access to information denied to ordinary members of the public. On occasion they have sold that information to newspapers.

If I mentioned all the newspapers, or the ones I have been able to discover, that indulge in chequebook journalism I fear that none of them would report the debate because most of them would be incriminated by my speech. As I cannot be accurate, I shall desist from mentioning any of them. There is a handful that do not indulge in the practice.

The amounts of money involved may vary from a few pounds to as much as £100,000, or so it is alleged. It is the purpose of my Bill to cover amounts of money from £500 upwards.

I have tried hard to think of ways of making chequebook journalism illegal but I cannot find any easy or efficient way of doing so. Sometimes there are beneficial results, of which I shall give two brief examples. Some years ago the thalidomide scandal was revealed because of a payment by a newspaper to an individual who had inside information. More recently the publicity given to the doubtful effectiveness of the Lion breathalyser also came to light as a result of payments by a newspaper.

I repeat that it is not my intention to make chequebook journalism illegal; it is only to make it more difficult. The test seems to be that it is justified as a practice if the newspaper concerned is fully prepared to own up to what it has done, how much money it has paid and to whom the money has been paid. It is the purpose of the Bill to achieve that end.

I do not seek to interfere in contractual relationships between newspapers and people who supply information. I simply believe that it is the responsibility of the British press that such transactions, because they affect the way newspaper stories are seen and received by the public, should be made public. If the House gives me permission to proceed with the Bill that will be the result of the legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alfred Dubs, Ms. Clare Short, Mr. Max Madden, Mr. Brian Sedgemore, Mr. Kevin Barron, Mr. Ken Weetch, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Robin Corbett and Mr. Tom Cox.