HC Deb 27 November 1987 vol 123 cc509-74 9.34 am
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Ibeg to move, That this House considers the freedom of the Press to be a vital part of the democratic process; and expresses its concern that some aspects of current legislation, combined with the present concentration of ownership of the Press and the falling standard of honesty and integrity of some newspapers, indicate a need for Parliament to enact legislation designed to enhance and protect the freedom of the Press. This debate comes at a timely and appropriate moment, in view of some of the court cases that are now under way. My motion is not intended in any way to be an academic one. We can get caught up in all sorts of arguments about the definition of freedom of the press. I am not concerned about that. We all know that something is going seriously wrong with the press in our country, and we need to examine that carefully because there is general agreement that a free and open press is essential to a vibrant, healthy democracy. We are in danger of losing that for a number of reasons, some of which my motion touches on.

New technology is another factor that is changing the press. Many people in the newspaper industry know that, and I do not intend to dwell too much upon it. Politicians must be careful when speaking about the press. We have an ambivalent relationship with it. At one point we seek its favours; at another, we condemn it for what it said or did not say. I think it was Enoch Powell who said that politicians have the same relationship with the press as sailors have with the sea—for a sailor to condemn the sea would be nonsense.

I am concerned about the selectivity of reporting, which was what originally drew my attention to the problems that were beginning to emerge in the press quite a few years ago. My interest grew because of the nature of the reporting of crime. We have known for some years that the fear of crime is greater than its reality. People are more afraid of being victims of crime than is justified by the statistics. The discrepancy is often great, and I asked myself why that should be so. One of the primary reasons is purely environmental — run-down, ill-lit, badly designed inner-city areas, and so on. However, that is not the only reason.

I was alerted to the problem when three elderly ladies in my constituency referred to three murders in Shepherds Bush at a public meeting about eight years ago. I knew of only one, and asked them why they thought there had been three. Back came the reply that they had been reported in the local paper. I checked that paper. In the relevant period, there had been one murder, but three headline stories about it — one when the crime was committed, one when the man was charged and one when he was sentenced. I then counted the number of crime stories in one of my local papers and found that between one third and one half of all news stories were crime-related. That seemed vastly out of proportion to real life in Shepherds Bush.

I then discovered that the borough of Camden had done a more scientific survey of how its local papers reported crime. It found that the percentage of news stories related to crime varied from 7 per cent, in one paper to 60 per cent, in another. A further breakdown of the figures showed that violent or sexual crime was given greater emphasis than were more commonplace offences, quite out of proportion to the real risk of being a victim of such crimes. As usual there was little effort to explain crime or criminal behaviour in any terms other than moral ones. It seemed to me that crime reporting relied on picking out incidents that were uncommon and presenting them as stereotypes against a background that is supposed to represent normality. But that normality is defined by the media. This area is a minefield, because in some inner-city areas one in four households has been afflicted by burglary. Nevertheless, crime reporting can be misleading because of the quantity of stories reported and the way in which they are selected and emphasised.

This brings us to one of the contentious areas of press reporting. One of the problems that has emerged in recent years has been the incredible emphasis placed on the type of story that deals with sex, violence and the royal family. I have never ceased to be amazed at the way in which papers such as The Sun give emphasis to sex and violence at the same time as they call for harsher penalties for offenders. That is rather like the drug trafficker attacking the addict.

Part of the explanation for such stories must lie in the desire of most of us to be excited vicariously by stories of sex and violence and to be fascinated by the secret, or, in some cases, the not so secret, lives of the famous or the infamous. Reluctantly I must accept that there is a market for such stories and we seek them in books and films as well as in the press and on television.

If all we had to worry about was the way in which the media deal with crime the situation would be intolerable, if undesirable. However, there is a political, racial and sexual prejudice that is unbalanced because the media are no longer diverse enough to reflect the many different strands of opinion in a pluralist society. The retreat of The Times and all that it stood for behind the razor wire at Wapping is a graphic illustration of the need for the British political parties to develop media policies. Among other things, any such policies must be designed, first, to maximise consumer choice by increasing access to broadcasting and publishing. Secondly, they should protect journalists from restrictions that can inhibit investigative journalism. Thirdly, those polices should give greater protection, through a right of reply, to groups and individuals who have been the victims of untrue statements. I shall develop those arguments later in my speech.

The concentration of the press into fewer hands—the ownership of four-fifths of the dailies and Sundays is now concentrated in the hands of four multinationals—is a cause of great concern not just to politicians and to the public, but to many newspaper people who recognise that potentially there are severe dangers for the industry.

The Rupert Murdoch News International group owns The Sun, The Times, Today, News of the World and the Sunday Times. Until March 1987 the circulation of those newspapers was 10,895,876, or 33.8 per cent, of total national sales. Robert Maxwell's Mirror Group Newspapers owns the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People. Those newspapers have a circulation of 9,099,466 — 28.2 per cent, of national sales. Lord Stevens' United Newspapers group owns the Daily Express, The Star and the Sunday Express. Those papers have a circulation of 5.2 million—16.2 per cent, of national sales.

The situation is further complicated because most local newspapers are controlled by four conglomerates — Thomson Regional Newspapers, Associated Newspapers, which of course owns the Daily Mail, Westminster Press, which is linked to the Financial Times and The Economist, and Reed International that owns the Daily Mirror. That is an alarming trend because, as we have seen, proprietors interfere with editorial freedom from time to time. Therefore, they influence public opinion and control standards.

At one stage I took the view that newspapers did not influence public opinion as much as one might think on a simplistic, day-to-day judgment. However, much research now suggests that newspapers influence attitudes and values, including political behaviour. I will not give the House the full details of that research, but they are available for those who wish to study them.

It is true that many people buy newspapers for reasons other than for reading about the news. They may buy them for sport, for other entertainment or just to know what is on television. However, people are greatly influenced by headline stories if only because those stories select what is said to be the news.

The companies that control the local papers are themselves part of multinationals that have extensive interests in other media, in international banking, oil interests and so on. The media colonisation by such multinationals is, of course, dominated by News International.

The process of referring papers planning to merge to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has, in recent times, become sadly devalued. Since 1965 proposed newspaper mergers have been referred to the MMC under the Fair Trading Act 1973. That process has been discredited. In 1966 the MMC allowed Lord Thomson to buy The Times despite his already enormous newspaper empire. Worse still, Mr. Murdoch's purchase of The Times and the Sunday Times should have been referred but was not. The excuse given was that the papers were failing and that allows referrals to be bypassed. However, that claim was not true about the Sunday Times.

The latest example of the Government's determination to back the concentration of press ownership occurred when Mr. Murdoch bid for Today in July this year. The Government refused to refer that bid to the MMC. The Fair Trading Act needs to be amended to ensure the referral to the MMC of all large newspaper mergers. By "large" I mean those newspapers that have a circulation of more than 500,000—by no means small in terms of readership.

The commission should be able to withhold approval unless it is satisfied that the merger would not be against the public interest — in other words, reversing the present onus of proof. The commission should also consider the need for a variety of public opinion to be represented in the press. Only one application for takeover was refused by the MMC. However, in most cases Mr. Murdoch has used the escape clause of "not economic as a going concern" and that seems to cover just about everything. Indeed, I believe that a Conservative Member said that Mr. Murdoch might as well have a free pass to take over any newspaper that he wishes.

The changes that have occurred in local newspapers have been dramatic and rapid. They have varied from area to area. One of my local newspapers has improved dramatically recently and I am pleased about that. However, others have gone to the wall or have deteriorated. The scene is mixed. The worrying thing is ownership. In fact, 22 of the 78 weekly papers purchased in London are owned by Westminster Press. Westminster Press is a subsidiary of Pearson that owns the Financial Times, Penguin, Longman and 50 per cent, of The Economist. There has been recent speculation of a takeover bid by News International. Westminister Press also owns 13 free local newspapers.

United Newspapers publishes the Daily Express, The Star, the Sunday Express and more than 50 local newspapers. It publishes seven free newspapers in greater London and owns nearly one third of the Yellow Advertiser series that publishes another 19 newspapers. Associated Newspapers has one free newspaper and controls the Evening Standard, the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. BET, a large multinational, owns 18 purchased papers and 16 free newspapers. Reed International owns 15 free London newspapers. Most of the other local newspapers are owned by chains often based elsewhere. For example, the Croydon Advertiser group is owned by Portsmouth and Sunderland Newspapers.

The free press is booming and its advertising revenue overtook purchased local newspapers advertising revenue as long ago as 1984. Some bought papers are converting to free and others such as the South London Press are setting up free newspapers to protect their territory. Camden has one interesting paper, the Camden New Journal. It is a rare example of an independent paper run by a co-operative of the work force and it has a circulation of 55,000. That paper has lasted five years.

At this stage I should like to say more, although it is hard to get the detailed figures that I require, about the ethnic minority press. That section of the press performs an important function and, in some ways, it has been a small, still voice defending ethnic minority groups against some of the more outrageous racial statements that have been made from time to time. Those newspapers manage to survive in an environment that does nothing to help them. Later in my speech I shall discuss how we might help those newspapers.

There used to be many alternative community newspapers. In that respect there used to be a flourishing radical press. Those newspapers have almost disappeared. It is true that whoever owns a newspaper tends to shift its political view. There are a number of examples of that, but perhaps the clearest is The Sun, which everyone now forgets used to be the Daily Herald. The collapse of papers such as the News Chronicle, the Daily Herald, Reynolds News — if I remember correctly, that newspaper later became the Sunday Citizen—came about, if we are to accept Mr. Curran's and Mr. Seaton's book, "Power Without Responsibility", because they fell between two stools. They did not have sufficient quantity in circulation and nor did they have the sufficient quality to attract the advertising that was necessary to fund them. There is much evidence to suggest that there is a great temptation in the newspaper world to go for the sex, violence and royal family-type story because they boost the mass quantity circulation and enable newspapers to survive.

The only alternative is to go for the quality area of the market, which is what The Independent and The Guardian have done. I welcome that. I do not want to give the impression that all is bleak. Some of the better papers cross the political divide. There is a problem for all political parties, but I recognise that The Daily Telegraph is a good newspaper. I may not agree with its views—I disagree with them often—but it has a much better coverage and a fairer presentation of the news than other newspapers.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It does not have a bad crossword.

Mr. Soley

As my hon. friend says, it has a good crossword. It is one of the few that I can do, so it must be a good one.

There is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that the public is sceptical about the reliability of news reporting. I remember one survey that showed that 46 per cent. of the public thought that the BBC news was not absolutely accurate. If people believe that about the BBC, I would hope that they are even more sceptical about the content of some of the newspapers. That is a healthy scepticism and it may well be a recognition that no one can report events accurately in a way that pleases everybody because we all see things from a different perspective and we have different views about them. That is why the variety is so important. Unless there is a variety of choice, one is in trouble. Almost all the present papers support the Conservative party, and that must be unhealthy and undesirable in our democracy.

Unfair and untrue reporting is one of the basic underlying problems that we face, together with the concentration of ownership and also the problem of certain Government legislation such as the Official Secrets Act. I recommend to hon. Members the University of London Goldsmith's College interim report entitled "Media Coverage of London Councils". It focused on a series of bizarre stories about the activities of local authorities in London and it stated: According to some press reports, Hackney council banned the word manhole as sexist; Haringey council proscribed black dustbin liners as racist; Hackney, Brent and Islington councils banned the nursery rhyme 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'; Brent is paying for a free trip for black youths to go to Cuba … It gave further examples, and then stated: We investigated the background to these stories and spoke wherever possible to the journalists who wrote them. Our conclusion is that not one of these stories is accurate. A few appear to have been conjured out of thin air; the rest, although loosely connected with some basis of fact, have got important details wrong and are misleading … A story alleging that Hackney council had banned the use of the word 'manhole' first appeared in the London Standard of 27th February 1986. The story was headlined, 'Taking "sexist" man out of manhole' and was attributed to a 'Standard' reporter. The substance of the story was that the council's equal opportunities committee had proposed banning the term and that this was now council policy. The article quoted four people; an anonymous council 'spokesman'; Sewage worker Tom Jordan, Tory councillor, Joe Lobenstein and deputy council leader, Jim Cannon. … The important point is the way that a story, true or false, is picked up and the way that it then expands and snowballs: The story was followed up in the Daily Star, the Sun and the London Standard the following day. Both the Sun and the Standard carried very short pieces: the Sun under the headline, 'Now manhole is a dirty word', the Standard using the simple title, 'Loony'. The Daily Star, however, carried a full report of the story by a 'Star' reporter headlined, 'Now the Lefties ban manholes'. The story is almost identical to the previous day's Standard report, adding only that Jim Cannon said, 'I am at the stage when use of the word man grates with me'. A Sun editorial on Saturday 1st March, headlined 'Not again', opined that Hackney councillors were not fit to hold public office and that: 'As for the idiot who first thought of banning manholes,' we suggest he puts his head down the nearest access chamber and keeps it there'. The story formed the subject of Keith Waterhouse's column in the Daily Mirror on 3rd of March. This indicates how the problem crosses the party line, because: … under the headline, 'The Silly Tendency", Waterhouse relates the story, along with some others, about Lambeth changing street names and declares that councillors are 'barking mad' and a 'gang of lunatics'. The story was also repeated in the Cumberland Evening News, the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, the Nottingham Evening Post, the East London Advertiser, the Southend Evening News and Municipal Journal. In addition, there were letters in the London Standard, the Birmingham Evening Mail, the Sunday Telegraph and Ilford Recorder… Hackney Council have never issued any instruction, memo or report about the use of the word manhole. The council does not employ, and has not in recent years employed anyone by the name of Tom Jordan. The council does have a policy of avoiding words that give the impression that a job is specifically reserved for men, and so words such as chairman, foreman and fireman are discouraged. 'Manhole' has been the subject of no discussion or decision of the council … The racist bin liner is blacked. Under the headline 'the racist binliner is blacked', Chester Stern claimed in the Mail on Sunday that 'black bin liners have been banned at Bernie Grant's left-wing Haringey council because the are 'racially offensive'. This was supported by an alleged statement from an anonymous 'storeman' at the north London council's central depot and by a quote from a councillor who said, 'there was no written ban on the use of black sacks' but added that the council had 'a strong anti-racist policy'. Stern ended his piece with: 'The council has now changed over to grey sacks to avoid offending West Indian workers in the cleaning department'. The report, notwithstanding the citation of an anonymous source, is without substance. The council had not decided to ban black bin liners. Indeed, days after the article appeared, the Civic Services Committee accepted a tender from a local supplier of black bin liners, since these were the cheapest on offer. Stern, of course, could not have known about this decision, since it was taken after he wrote the report for the Mail on Sunday. Chester Stern was not available for comment… On 9th March 1986 the Mail on Sunday published a small and misleading 'update' on the binliners story. Under the headline 'Race peace in the bag' on 9th March 1986 we learn that 'black dustbin liners at the centre of a council race storm are not to be banned after all'. What had previously been presented as fact was repeated as such by Today, is now presented as a proposal subsequently withdrawn. Notwithstanding this new twist, the Mail on Sunday continued to publish letters by readers who had apparently not read of the 'new' event. The next example is the so-called freebie trip for blacks: An article claiming that the London borough of Brent is providing cash to black youths to visit Cuba free and that the funding is not available to whites was carried in the Sun on 26 February 1987. The story, billed as 'Another Sun Exclusive' was headlined 'Freebie Trip For Blacks But White Kids Must Pay. Barmy Brent Does It Again!' The story was written by David Jones. The story alleged that the council will spend at least £9,000 to make good any shortfall in the fundraising of the group making the trip. Those chosen to go must be unemployed, on low pay or rehabilitating after conviction for a crime … the group's only connection with the council is that they are affiliated to its youth community service, like hundreds of other groups in the borough (including the scouts and guides). Brent allowed them to use council premises for fund raising raffles and auctions but made it clear that they would not help to pay for the proposed trip. Blacks are not being favoured at the expense of whites. There is no youth worker called Shirley Williams in Brent. Youth worker Lesley Williams denies making the statements attributed to Shirley Williams. No one was specially chosen for the trip and there are no special qualifications such as being unemployed. When asked about his sources, David Jones refused to comment other than maintaining that he did speak to a 'Shirley Williams'. The story was repeated (anonymously) in the Daily Mail. The stories in the Sun and Daily Mail have, according to Caribbean Exchange, made it more difficult to raise funds, have sown racial divisions and have exerted a 'destructive effect' on the project. On of the saddest aspects about the debate is that in the last century and earlier his century newspapers would have protected minority groups and run impressive campaigns to protect minority rights. That practice has been undermined and destroyed in recent years by some newspapers. I want to emphasise that that is one of the most serious points about the debate.

It is also significant that these reports occurred in the run-up to a general election: On 25 May 1986 the Mail on Sunday's Liz Lightfoot ran a piece under the headline 'Bernie's banter is baffling.' With the strap, 'parents fury at Caribbean Dialect Lessons.' The article claimed that 'Bernie Grant, controversial leader of Haringey council, has caused uproar over a scheme to teach West Indian dialect in the borough's schools.'… The story was picked up by a number of other papers … The Sun ran a leader on it and referred to the latest craze of London's Haringey council which 'wants children to be taught West Indian dialect Creole … they will be understood in the backstreets of Kingston, Jamaica, and probably nowhere else in the world … But don't imagine that Bernie's antics will afflict only one suffering part of London. Remember he is a Parliamentary candidate for Labour at the next Election. … Labour is now the official barmy party.' The story also appeared in provincial newspapers, including the Shropshire Star under the headline 'Now time he was agoing. What I want to know' the writer asked, 'is when Bernie Grant and his friends are going? The sooner and the farther the better. That may be Double Dutch. But do you get my drift?' That was a nasty piece of reporting. This story seems to be based on reports in local newspapers on a conference held in Haringey on the subject of Caribbean languages in schools. Ten days earlier, … the Weekly Herald reported the conference under the headline 'Creole for Kids?' This correctly reported that the conference was organised by Haringey Community Relations Council, not by the London Borough of Haringey as Lightfoot asserts. Moreover, the conference had the support of some black parents' groups, and was not simply universally opposed as the Mail on Sunday's report insisted. This aspect had come out quite clearly in the Times Educational Supplement's report on 23 May on the conference, 'Black parents in Creole campaign.' When contacted, Miss Lightfoot claimed that her report had been cut, and so may not have been too clear in its final form. I am prepared to accept that at face value. On Thursday 18 December 1986, the Sun ran a front-page story headlined 'Swim pool guard in aids horror'". That is an example of how the press, when it gets out of control, can whip up hysteria against a minority group consisting of seriously ill people who can be easily made scapegoats by the rest of society. Such action can end in violence if we are not careful. The Sun headline read: '"Swim pool guard in aids horror. Open-Sores man dead.' The article by Phil Dampier was billed as 'Another Sun exclusive.' It claimed that 'batchelor Tony Jasper' 'worked for months with horrific sores over his body and blood oozing from his hands.'… The story was followed up by the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph the following day. The Daily Mail article was headlined 'Aids victim worked at swimming pool' and was written by Gareth Woodgates. Although it could be taken as suggesting that the council acted improperly in not informing staff, the article also made clear that the council felt an obligation to respect the sick man's confidence. The Daily Telegraph article—'Swim-pool man dies of Aids.'—by Stephen Bates, added no additional details, made the council's position clear and did not sensationalise the issue. Many of the allegations in the Sun article are simply untrue. Both the Sun and the Mail suggested that the man's employers allowed him to work on when they knew he was suffering from Aids. In fact, the council did not know the man had Aids when he was working as a pool-side attendant and Phil Dampier admitted as much when he wrote, 'When officers of Newham Council in East London discovered he was an Aids carrier, they moved him from pool-side duties to a ticket office in another baths.' The Sun stated that he had 'horrific sores over his body and blood oozing from his hands.' This is also untrue. Assistant Director of Leisure Services … visited the man … and he had blotches on his skin associated with the karposi aspect of the Aids virus. The Sun made much of the fact that, in his new job as a cashier, the man 'continued to handle money and deal with thousands of children.' In fact, once the council were aware that there was a problem—although they were still unclear, as to its exact nature—they discussed the man's job description with the District Health Authority, who advised that exchanging coins presented no risk to the public. All of us who have even a working knowledge of the AIDS virus know that that is correct.

That brings me to the right of reply issue and the National Union of Journalists' code. It is a very good code. It states in connection with the reporter: He or she shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship. Article 3 of the code refers to accurate and fair reporting and avoiding falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation. The code refers to the importance of journalists rectifying any inaccuracy. Item 10 advises journalists not to report things in a racial manner.

The right of reply exists in a number of other countries. It has existed in France since 1874 and it exists in West Germany, Denmark and Sweden. A former Member of the House, Mr. Frank Allaun, introduced a Bill to bring in the right of reply to this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) has a private Member's Bill on the right to reply on the Order Paper at the moment.

I have examined the digest of the Press Council decisions from 1953 to 1984. I bore in mind when examining them that in 1977 the Royal Commission on the press said that the Press Council is more concerned about protecting newspapers from the public than about raising standards. The sad thing about the Press Council is not just that it appears to be very weak, but it is naive in its understanding of the nature and extent of the problem. The "Digest of Council Decisions" states: Those who favour legislation on a right of reply overlook the fact that no such legislative right in any country in the world affords such an ample and effective facility for reply. Without any expense, other than his postage, and by a simple and rapid process the complainant with a just claim can secure from the Press Council not merely the publication of his reply but a fair and fully comprehensible account of how he comes to be making it. That is not correct. Indeed, the News of the World refused to publish such a reply at one stage.

I have engaged in an exchange of letters. Although I do not want to go into details, I have had a good media on the whole. I have had two occasions to complain since I became an hon. Member. One incident related to a report in which there was a mistake, and I can understand how that happened. The mistake did not involve me in any way. I was wrongly reported as having attacked the police in an incident in Earls Court. Two newspapers, which I have often referred to in the debate, the Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Express wrote vitriolic editorials claiming wrongly that I did not know anything about facing violence and things of that nature. More importantly, when I asked for a letter to be published to put matters right, I received a letter from John Junor, the editor of the Sunday Express, who said: I have to tell you that you have not attempted to answer the criticism made of you by the leader. If you can address yourself solely and specifically to that criticism then I shall be prepared to look again at what you have to say. They did not publish my letter, and not surprisingly. Sir David English, of the Daily Mail, wrote: I am perfectly prepared to publish a letter from you but I think it should be more directly to the point than the one you have sent me and more accurate in the way it quotes other newspapers' headlines. The matter has been very disturbing.

The University of London Goldsmith's college report is very interesting. One of the most disturbing things is that certain newspapers fare badly in the report. Stories have been taken up unevenly or incorrectly and that has occurred in The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and The London Standard. I know a number of journalists on those papers and some are very good and I respect them. I know other members of those papers at various levels who are very good. If the system is becoming so bad that we rely on stories that are at best distorted and at worst untrue and actually select minority groups or individuals to create hatred against, we are going down a dangerous slope.

We do not have to believe that the editors of those papers are a new form of Doctor Goebbels to recognise the danger of picking out minority groups of individuals, either racial or sexual minorities. They direct hatred and vitriol at them knowing that such feelings exist in society and they can be easily whipped up to accentuate those feelings.

Mr. Skinner

I am interested in my hon. Friend's remarks about the untruthfulness of editorials. I am not usually one to complain, but I draw his attention to the fact that during the last demonstration at Wapping many people made speeches, a lorry was overturned and, according to the television news, it caught fire. It was reported by some of the newspapers to which my hon. Friend has referred, including in editorials, that I had been at Wapping and made a speech that incited the riot. I did not make a speech at Wapping that night. I believe that those events took place on a Saturday. During the following week Conservative Members demanded that I make a personal statement about having incited the riot through a speech that I did not make.

Mr. Soley

My hon. Friend is right. In fact, I have some knowledge of the facts involved. I know that there are hon. Members on both sides of the House who are worried about what is happening. Stories may be directed at us today, but they will be directed at someone else tomorrow. Although it may be comfortable for the Government to have the support of the press, at the end of the day they have to contain a situation in which people are getting angrier and angrier about misreporting.

A new development—one that I welcome—is that the anxiety has been expressed within the press and media and by a number of Tory Back Benchers. Another area in which the anxiety has been expressed is in the form of libel settlements. With one or two exceptions, libel settlements were relatively low during the 1970s and early 1980s. They then began to go up dramatically. This year settlements have been rocketing up towards the £500,000 level. The last three settlements have been £450,000, £500,000 and £260,000. That compares with settlements under the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board where the loss of an eye is worth £12,000, rape is worth £2,750 and loss of hearing is worth £32,000. The sum of £38,000 was placed on the loss of life after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise.

The judges and juries—particularly the juries because it is they who decide on the amount of libel — are recognising two things. When the press writes libellous stories, it has to be made to pay for the way in which it is using its power or there may be a more simple explanation in that people are aware that newspapers pay out large prizes for bingo and so on and that they can afford large settlements.

One bit of me thinks every now and again that if a paper has been running the sort of stories of which I have been critical, it deserves to pay. However, another bit of me, which I hope is the bit that will survive in the end, believes that if we allow the judges and the courts to impose libel settlements of that type — I can understand why it is happening — it will ultimately destroy any attempt by editors or journalists to do good investigative reporting because they will be scared to do so.

I said earlier that it is an insidious process for both sides of the House. From the simple loony-Left type stories it may look as if it is only the Labour party that is being clobbered. However, if we go on down this road, there will inevitably be a time when investigative journalism will die. The editor who would like to say, "You have a good story here, go ahead and do it" will look at the price of the last libel settlement and say, "Sorry, we can't risk it."

I wish to deal with the Official Secrets Act and the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. I could spend a great deal of time on the Official Secrets Act, but I know that other hon. Members wish to deal with it. Therefore, I do not intend to spend much time on the Zircon affair or "Spycatcher". I simply want to say what is self-evident to everyone. One of the reasons why the media have become increasingly worried in recent years is that they have seen that censorship through legislation such as the Official Secrets Act has an effect. For example, in the Opinion column of the Index on Censorship, August 1987, it was said: Had someone told me that there would come a day when a leading British newspaper would introduce a front-page article with the words 'This news report is published under British Government restrictions', I should have dismissed it as a sick joke. Yet, this is exactly what happened on Sunday, 2 August, when The Observer reported a speech by Labour MP Dale Campbell-Savours, in which he quoted from the book Spycatcher by the former MI5 officer Peter Wright. … The Observer accompanied the report with a reproduction of p368 of the book, with almost half of the text 'blacked out' to conform to the restrictions. The caption read: 'A key page of the Wright memoirs as imported freely by The Observer from the US. Any member of the British public may order the book from the US booksellers for $20 plus $3 postage, and read every word. But under government injunctions we are allowed only to reproduce the above censored version. That says all I want to say at this stage about the Official Secrets Act. There is growing recognition that that Act, in its present form, has to be replaced. The Zircon affair is another example of that.

A less well known power is that in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which enables the police to insist on being given photographs from the television or press when they want them. That led to a number of raids. I believe that the raid in the Zircon affair was carried out under those powers. I want to deal with Operation Delivery in Bristol after the Bristol riots. The police raided the Bristol Evening Post and the television company and took away certain photographs. I am sure that those organisations were deeply disturbed about the fact that the police thought it necessary to take the photographs. Well over 100 charges were brought, but there was only one conviction and that person received a suspended sentence. The costs were not awarded to the police because the judge said that he could not accept the evidence of one of the police witnesses.

I wrote to the Home Secretary saying that he should consider repealing the section of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act that had caused the crisis for the media in the south-west of Britain. He declined to do so. The problem is that it puts journalists and photographers at risk. If one is a journalist or photographer faced with a public order problem and the public know that photographs can be taken and used in evidence, the safest thing is not to be there or not to take photographs.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Is not the biggest menace the fact that when the police make an application it can be for unpublished and unused material and not simply for that used in broadcasts or put into print?

Mr. Soley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I should have pointed that out because it is important.

The difficulty is that either the editor hands over the photographs without question, in which case he also hands over a significant amount of independence, or he does not hand over the photographs and the place is raided. Either way, it must be undesirable in a democracy. We have to draw a better distinction between reporting rights, which are an essential part of letting the public know what is happening, and the powers of the police in situations such as that.

I am sorry to have taken so much time, but as I rarely win ballots of this type I am not going to pass up the opportunity. We need to deal with the question of ownership. We need a law that restricts total ownership. Such a law operates in Italy and France. In Italy it operates on the basis of 20 per cent, of market share being the maximum for any one owner. In France the figure is 15 per cent. One can control ownership by limiting the number of newspapers that an individual or organisation owns or by the percentage of total circulation. Either of those two methods could be looked at.

We have to do something about the right of reply, which, as I have said, exists in many countries. I think that there is a strong case for an ombudsman approach. If a person did not obtain satisfaction, he could apply to the ombudsman, which might more effectively ensure that the newspaper published the material rather than declining to do so, as some newspapers have done.

The Press Council might also consider making an annual report on standards of journalism in the press generally. That could lead to much more useful debate. We should not have had to let matters slide to such an extent among some newspapers some of the time without being able to say or do anything effective about it, rather than waiting for a Friday morning debate to start stressing the concern that is felt on both sides of the House.

We should be able to subsidise new or low-circulation newspapers. The Scandinavian countries do that very successfully. Some people will say that we should not subsidise newspapers. As I understand it, however, we subsidise newspapers already, because we do not put VAT on newsprint.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

Not yet.

Mr. Soley

They are working on it. However, we have accepted for many years that newsprint should be excluded from VAT.

The press has had an honourable history in this country since it began all that time ago, but in the olden days it was easier and cheaper to publish. It may now be easier technologically, but it is not cheap. If we really believe in variety of choice, we must help people in. There are several ways of doing that. One suggestion put forward by the Labour party is a media enterprise board, which bears some similarity to the Sutton Printing Corporation. Journalists can be assisted with a buy-out if a paper is being purchased by someone else, minority groups can be helped to get newspapers going and the minority press generally can be assisted.

Another important aspect is outlets. It is no good being able to produce newspapers if they cannot be displayed or sold. There is a lovely part of the Soviet constitution which gives everyone the right to print whatever he likes—but try getting one's hands on a printing press! Matters operate rather differently here, but there is a similar problem. It is difficult to get into the printing world in the first place; once that is achieved, there is the difficulty of circulating the paper. Distribution is another problem that we should consider, and a media enterprise board could be of considerable assistance in that regard as well.

The Official Secrets Act must be abolished sooner or later, and the sooner we do it, the better. We also need a freedom of information Act. It is incredible how secretive the country has become during the past 80 years, as a result of two world wars and the Northern Ireland crisis. While the reasons for that increased secrecy can be understood, if we look back to what the House, and indeed the press, did in the last century and in the early part of this century, we see that there was a much more open society than now. What is worrying is that we have allowed that openness to be eroded in a number of ways.

Mr. Buchan


Mr. Soley

Before my hon. Friend intervenes, let me tell the House something that will, in any case, appeal to him. I have discovered that there is a Scottish sewage Act which prevents the disclosure of the amount of effluent being discharged. There are innumerable such examples which prompt one to ask, "What on earth is all this about?". Legislation such as the Local Government Bill, the Companies Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act restrains journalism and other vitally necessary information.

Mr. Buchan

I did not intend to intervene on that information about the Scottish sewage Act. I wished merely to comment on my hon. Friend's comparison between the past and the present in this country. Let us examine the present position in the United States. Matters there are infinitely more open. Colonel North turned himself into a hero for a short time, but at least he was there; at least he was questioned. That does not happen here.

Mr. Soley

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United States has a good, open system, for which I give it credit. The incredible thing is that many parts of that system were copied from this country. The old reports of parliamentary committees show that not only was evidence taken from all round the country, but statements and inquiries were made which would not be carried out in the same way now. I have given the example of the inquiry by the House into the Clerkenwell riots of the late 1830s and early 1840s. The impact of the House, and the use of the press in relation to the House, were then much more impressive in upholding civil liberties and discussing rationally the role of the police.

Discussion in the press — and, to an extent, here, because we feed on the press—is becoming more and more centred on personalities rather than policies. It is worrying for any democracy if attention is focused on a person who is saying something, rather than on what that person is saying. It is always worth remembering in a democracy that today's outrageous ideas may be tomorrow's common sense. If, 100 years ago, it was said that women should be allowed in here, or even allowed to vote, it was considered an outrageous and absurd suggestion. Now, if anyone suggested the opposite, he would be in trouble. At one time people were pilloried, executed or put in prison for claiming that the earth went round the sun. Society needs healthy, open discussion, which should focus on ideas and views and not on individuals.

To protect the press, we need to reform the contempt, libel and copyright laws, all of which impose serious restraints on the development of the press that we wish to see. As I have already said, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission should be re-examined. People sometimes say to me that, if we go too far down such a road, it will lead to statutory guidelines for the press. I am not sure about the arguments for and against statutory guidelines; however, they have not made television broadcasting worse. Indeed, evidence suggests that many television journalists, including investigative journalists, are performing extremely well under such guidelines. While that may not be the answer for the press, I feel that it should be considered.

I hope that the debate has provided an opportunity for all of us to look openly and fairly not only at the press itself but at the way we, as parliamentarians, should achieve the sort of press that we want. We erode our democracy by stages without recognising that we are doing it. I believe that all the issues that I have mentioned are of fundamental importance to the quality of democratic life in this country. We must not become lackadaisical and allow some of what has been going on to continue.

As I hope I have made clear, I qualify my views with the belief that many good newspaper journalists make major efforts to report news as truthfully as any individual can. Nevertheless, there are the underlying problems of the concentration of ownership, falling standards and issues such as the right of reply and the difficulty of helping newspapers to get started.

I am grateful to the House for giving me the opportunity to pursue what I consider to be one of the most vital matters that affect us. I hope that, over the next few years, we can begin a rational discussion on the future, so that we may end up with a healthy, democratic, vibrant press. We want a press which, while it may criticise Members of Parliament—and have a go at individual members of the Labour party if we say or do something wrong or stupid—is based on reason and the accurate reporting of views and ideas, however outrageous they may appear.

10.28 am
Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) is to be congratulated on giving us an opportunity at long last to talk about various aspects of the media. If I may be forgiven for starting on a personal note, when I was first elected a lifetime ago, my ambition was to be the Assistant Postmaster General. Circumstances, however, have conspired against me, and —faute de mieux—I have become a journalist, although not the sort who keeps his foot in the door. Rather like a character in Oscar Wilde, I have written for every great newspaper—once. That is not quite true. A year or so ago I was invited by The Sun to write a weekly political column. I was summoned to the offices of that great national institution with my first copy in order to meet the editor of The Sun, Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie. I waited for some time until Mr. MacKenzie arrived, stripped for squash — in white shorts, a white shirt and a scarf around his neck. In his right hand he carried an imaginary squash racket that he swished backwards and forwards. I thought then that Rupert Murdoch's motto to editors must be mens sana in corpore sano which, for the benefit of any members of the Government Whips' Office who are present, can be translated as, "It's your vote we want, not your voices."

Mr. MacKenzie invited me to write a weekly column. He said, "What we need on this paper is class on Saturdays." That is quite the nicest thing that anybody has ever said about me. But Professor John Vincent has for years straddled the opposite ends of the political spectrum by providing The Sun with class on Wednesdays, and The Sunday Times or The Times with class on different days of the week. Professor John Vincent is one of those curious people whom one might never have thought existed until recently. He is a Right-wing intellectual.

I suffered from a middle-class upbringing. My poor mother always had the Sunday Express. It is no joke to be brought up in a household in which the only Sunday newspaper is the Sunday Express. Sir John Junor has much to answer for.

This is a debate about rival assertions, in that the Left is inclined to suggest that we enjoy the worst newspapers in the world while the Right is happy to assert that we enjoy the worst broadcasting in the world. The answer to these two prejudices is that the Left discerns, not without difficulty, a strong Right-wing bias in our newspapers, while the Right objects to the neutrality of the BBC and of the Independent Television Authority. It should be pointed out that the governors of both the BBC and the IBA have a statutory obligation to preserve the neutrality of broadcasting. They strive towards that political objective. But if only our newspapers were as good as our broadcasters, how much happier we should be.

The Sun, The Star, The Mirror and all the tabloid newspapers sell about 9 million copies a day. They are no longer newspapers in any sense of the word. They are entertainment sheets. They could be described as the best thing in fiction that the British have ever done. They are the response to what I think is a half-educated democracy. In a real and important way, even the readers of the tabloids have their doubts and are reluctant to take them altogether seriously. Those doubts are demonstrated by their equivocation. When a loyal reader of The Sun finally appears on a jury in a libel case, he is the one who awards the largest amount of damages against the editor of that particular newspaper.

Curiously enough, Conservative associations — from time to time I meet members of Conservative associations —go on about sex and violence in the media. I always make the point that I am in favour of the one and against the other. Yet if one looks at the rivalry or the enmity that exists between newspapers and broadcasting institutions, one finds a series of leaders in newspapers against broadcasters and broadcasting, some of which come from Murdoch newspapers with a particular axe to grind.

However, sex and violence are just as apparent, rightly or wrongly, in the newspapers as on television. Anybody who imagines that broadcasting is a media where sex is to be discovered is bound to be disappointed. If anybody wants to discover sex, he should go to the cinema or to the theatre, where there is little or no censorship. Whatever happened to the Lord Chamberlain? On the box itself after 9 o'clock—that curious watershed when our children are supposed to be in bed—then at least from time to time, when we see "The Singing Detective", we can be reminded of our lost youth.

Last night on the telly there was a programme by "This Week" that looked at the monarchy and the press. It gave me the impression that what was on trial was the monarchy, as opposed to what should be on trial—the attitude of the tabloid press towards the monarchy. Is there not a danger that the triviality that is verging upon hostility which some newspapers show, not to major but to minor royalty, may begin to undermine the respect that the overwhelming majority of people have for that institution?

What about the way that the newspapers treat the House of Commons? When I finally retire, my ambition is not to go to the other place but to become a sketch writer, because they live so high off the hog. They have an exquisite light lunch four days a week that is paid for by the proprietors of their newspapers; they arrive here at 2.30 and sit in the Gallery; by half-past 3, or a quarter to 4 or 4 o'clock on Thursdays, they adjourn for a cup of Lapsang Souchong tea; they then write their copy and go to bed. Any hon. Member who speaks either on a Friday morning or after 4 o'clock on a weekday gets no mention whatsoever.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)

I think that today my hon. Friend will get a mention.

Mr. Critchley

My hon. Friend the Minister has been more kind to me than I deserve.

That is partly true, because the press has been inclined to treat politics as a form of entertainment. We owe this development to Mr. Bernard Levin who in the Spectator in the 1950s began to treat the House of Commons as though it were some sort of zoological garden. That particular style—entertaining though it is, or can be—is at the same time deceptive. There is a legitimate ground for complaint that those of us who speak infrequently and late do not get our names as frequently as we should like into the newspapers.

We must have the cameras in this place, and as soon as possible. Any arguments from above that suggest, in headmistressly tones, that if we do not behave ourselves we shall be kept in after school and that we shall not be entitled to have cameras in this place are, I am afraid, nonsense and ought to be resisted.

The fact that we do not have the cameras in this place is extraordinary. What do we have to hide? A great deal, perhaps, but we are under no obligation to hide it. By the same token, the voter is entitled to see what we get up to. I am for ever amazed at the extent of the ignorance of the public about what happens in this place. There are even members of my association in Aldershot who believe that, having sent me back at five-yearly intervals to this place, I am obliged to sit here every day from 2.30 until 10 o'clock at night. Can the House imagine a fate worse than that? If we had cameras in this place, we should attract back into the Chamber some hon. Members who have been driven from it by some of our more regular entertainers. That could only be to the benefit of the House.

I am sorry to say that we have the press that we deserve, just as we have the broadcasting that we deserve. I hope that members of my own great party—or should I say the great party to which I belong—will be a little kinder about the broadcasters, who serve them remarkably well, and a little ruder from time to time about the excesses of the press. After all, the private lives of Members of Parliament are now fair game. Has the House ever wondered why that should be? How could Lloyd George live a life of pleasure in London and go into the pulpit in north Wales every Sunday to preach upon the sanctity of the family? How could he get away with that? There are other examples from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. The great adventurers, whether Canadian or Australian, who came to this country in the early part of the century, and who bought newspapers and became newspaper magnates, wished to join the establishment of the day. People who were prepared to build large houses made of black glass were not the first to throw stones at others in public life. They wished to join the club. They had ambitions.

Today, the figures who own our great newspapers change their nationality as frequently as they change their shirt. They certainly do not live in the United Kingdom and they have no wish to be accepted by the establishment of this country. Can the House conceive of a French Government actually allowing an Australian to own a French newspaper? Such is the cultural nationalism of the French that they would make very certain that no one save a French citizen owned a French newspaper. Might we not give that some thought? Some time ago, the idea was mooted that when the independent companies' franchises came to an end, they should be put to auction. The House can imagine who would end up with all our television companies if that happened. That idea has been dropped, thank God, and not before time.

Mr. Renton

I am listening to my hon. Friend's speech with great pleasure and interest. He says that the French would not permit foreign ownership of their newspapers but he will doubtless acknowledge that they have allowed Robert Maxwell to buy a significant stake in one of their television companies recently.

Mr. Critchley

As long as it stops there and does not extend to football, all will be well.

10.43 am
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Like all other hon. Members, I greatly enjoy the writings and speeches of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) and he has not disappointed the House this morning. When the hon. Gentleman mentioned John Junor, he reminded me that I am in the rather unusual position of following in John Junor's footsteps. John Junor was the Liberal candidate for Aberdeenshire, West in 1945. Perhaps to the relief of the House, he was narrowly defeated by just over 500 votes. Consequently he was able to change his allegiance and write colourful columns about the man of Auchtermuchty. Despite Mr. Junor's best efforts, both Auchtermuchty and Aberdeenshire, West are now in Liberal hands.

This is an important debate and many of us are pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the issues that arise from it. We must acknowledge that to the general public it may appear rather an esoteric debate. The public buy newspapers and read them but I doubt whether they care very much who owns them or why. That does not mean that it is wrong for hon. Members to be concerned about the concentration of ownership that we have witnessed in recent years, because it has real implications for the freedom of the press. Each of two major proprietors now commands more than 30 per cent, of circulation. We need regulation to reduce the over-concentration of ownership but it is difficult to say exactly what that regulation should be. I am not sure that any hon. Member can be totally undisturbed that a single proprietor should command one third of circulation.

Matters could get considerably worse. I know that this may be hypothetical, or even absurd, but it is worth concentrating one's mind on what would happen if Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Maxwell decided to join forces or if one of them decided to leave the game and sell his winnings to the other. One might think that existing legislation would come into play to prevent such concentration, but there is nothing in the legislation that makes it clear that that would happen. As the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) has asked somewhat sarcastically, on other occasions, is there any point in having a mechanism that refers newspaper takeovers to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission when the commission has never yet refused an application in respect of a national newspaper? Many of us are beginning to question at what point the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would decide that a case justified refusal.

Only a few months ago, we debated the takeover of Today. I do not propose to rehearse the arguments, except to say that the Government's argument for invoking their power not to refer the case to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was that the newspaper would otherwise fold. The easiest line of argument that any business man can put forward in defence of concentrating monopoly is to say, "If I do not sell out, or if he does not buy me out, the business will fold." We need higher principles than that. After all, if the business can sustain itself only by becoming part of a potential monopoly, we are entitled to ask ourselves whether that business should be saved. Many of us believed that Today would have survived, anyway. There is no way that a proprietor who had had the paper valued at £36 million one day would close it the next while there was any possibility of finding a customer who would buy after the investigation—albeit at a reduced price.

One or two consequences of market domination by such a limited number of proprietors need to be considered. Such concentration enables proprietors to put considerable pressure on journalists and editors. We have seen signs that it is much more difficult for editors and journalists to resist strong proprietors, and that it requires a greater degree of courage to do so, when there is a limited number of alternative titles with which they can seek employment. At the moment, there may still be enough titles, but the time will come when the only alternative is the dole. That is a high price to pay for standing up to a wilful proprietor.

My next point relates to a straight commercial matter rather than to journalism. Such dominance in the market allows newspapers to wage circulation or advertising wars against their competitors, with a view to pushing them out of business and so increasing their own scope in the market or with a view to weakening them to the point where they can take them over. If it was clear that proprietors' ability to take over other newspapers was likely to be restricted by guidelines much clearer than those that we have at present, it might deter them from that course of action. We all know the procedures used in dealing with advertising agents whereby they are offered bulk discounts if they keep their advertising account with one group, and retrospective discounts if they agree to spend over a given period more than a certain amount of money with a given publishing group. Consequently, free competition in the market place is abused.

There is anxiety about the way in which this mechanism works. I have already expressed reservations about the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in the context of newspapers. I have some reservations about the commission's operations — although this debate is not about this matter—and was interested to note that its report on the takeover of British Caledonian will go to judicial review. That confirms my belief that that report was wrong.

One consequence of the change in style as well as the concentration of ownership is the greater abundance of cheque-book and law-court journalism. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) expressed concern about the size of recent damages. I concur with him, but I am concerned also about the high cost of taking libel actions against newspapers that wilfully publish mischievous reports, knowing that often they are pillorying someone who has not the slightest chance of risking the money needed to take them to court. There were mixed feelings in the House and outside it when Jeffrey Archer took his case to court. There was some satisfaction at the thought that a newspaper had been faced with such large damages, but there was anxiety because it required Jeffrey Archer's resources to take the issue that far. Many people would not have been able to entertain such an idea. I can understand the motivation behind the Bill of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) — the Unfair Reporting and Right of Reply Bill—to allow legal aid in libel cases in an effort to equalise the argument. I am not saying whether that is the right answer.

The issue is of concern because it gives newspaper proprietors certain opportunities. It is a matter of the balance of commercial judgment. The newspaper proprietor says, "If I can get a good juicy story about a national public figure and the circulation that I want, it does not really matter if I am taken to court. It does not matter how much it costs because, in terms of making money for my newspaper, it is an acceptable charge." If that is the standard by which newspapers intend to develop their circulation, it is a cause for grave concern.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at the bottom of this matter is the failure to distinguish between what is genuinely of public benefit and what is merely of interest to the public, which is almost insatiable in terms of the pursuit of circulation?

Mr. Bruce

I accept that point. The problem is with editors who simply make a commercial judgment and ask, "How do I achieve this circulation?" I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is implying that if the public are willing to buy that is good enough. If he is not, he probably agrees with me that a change of standard is required.

Mr. Cash

indicated assent.

Mr. Bruce

How we achieved that change in standard is a much more difficult matter.

The popular, mass circulation tabloids operate peculiar double standards. One is led to believe from the commercials in that super soar-away newspaper, The Sun, that it believes that we should have a happy-go-lucky attitude towards sex — as the hon. Member for Aldershot said, violence is another matter — but it pillories those people who conform to the image that it is trying to create. That is extraordinarily hypocritical. I would not even begin to dwell on the personal conduct of some journalists.

The circulation issue is serious but, naturally, hon. Members have concern for political issues and the political concentration on ideas. There is no doubt that the concentration of ownership in one, two or three major organisations that all have an identified, clear stance tends to supress diversity and plurality of view. Hon. Members will understand when I comment on the role of the Liberal party, or third parties. Hon. Members sometimes feel that when they represent particular strands of opinion — whether within the Conservative party or the Labour party —they are either ignored or unfairly represented. It is important to have a right of reply in some form. If newspapers wilfully misrepresent views, it is important to have the right to correct their articles and obtain fairer statements.

The right of access is importat as well. My complaint about many national newspapers is not that they are of a particulare colour in terms of their political stance. That does not worry me unduly, although I admit that I lamented the demise of Today. I would like some newspapers to support the alliance politically, but I do not think that the leader writer stance on a newspaper is that critical. Most readers can tell the difference, or perhaps they do not read the difference. I understand that evidence shows that readers of The Sun think that that newspaper supports the Labour party, which is a sign of exactly which parts of the newspaper they choose to read. My concern is with how newspapers present the news, select information and dress it up, what they omit, the general gloss put on news and the stance taken. Our complaint is frequently about deliberate omission by a particular newspaper, for clear political reason, of views that we have expressed.

I can give some recent topical examples. During Trade and Industry questions on Wednesday this week I raised the issue of the anxiety among people working in the Financial Times. The Daily Telegraph managed to report the fact that questions on this subject had been raised, the comment of the Minister of Trade and Industry and the contribution of the hon. Member for Thanet, South, whose contribution was well worth reporting, but did not refer to the fact that this was in response to questions that I initiated. Other newspapers did do that. Last week, the Scottish political correspondent for The Sunday Times chose to write a column on Scottish self-government, a matter that is exercising the minds of people in Scotland and the House more than somewhat. The article was written the day before the House had a full day's debate, initiated by the Liberal party, on the government of Scotland. The article dealt in a full column on the issues of the political parties in Scotland without referring to that debate or to the existence of the Liberal party or its position in Scotland. I refuse to accept that that was a fair comment. Clearly, it was a deliberate, conscious omission.

This is a debate on freedom of the press. Three weeks ago, "Week in Politics", for the second time in 12 months, had a half-hour programme on Scottish home rule and began by saying that the debate should be set against the background of the political balance in Scotland. The programme said that in Scotland there were 50 Labour Members, 10 Conservative Members and three Nationalist Members, and the discussion took place on that basis. Despite the fact that I had a meeting with Lord Thompson, the IBA chairman, the last time the Liberal party was excluded from the discussion, the party was again completely omitted from the debate. Perhaps that is enough special pleading. It reflects, however, the problems of access, rather than merely those of right of reply, which I consider to be legitimate and which lead many groups outside this place, and not only in politics, to feel that they do not get a proper hearing within the national press.

The concentration of ownership of the local press is a matter of growing concern, but if the local press is doing a job at all it is more accountable than the national press both to its readers and sources of news. That is because it needs to return to them week in and week out in a way that the national press does not. The national press is less concerned about upsetting its sources of news with inaccuracies than local newspapers.

The concentration of ownership of local newspapers is a worry because it is leading to standardisation of practice, less local news and increased syndication of national news within local newspapers. I think that the market will resolve the problem inasmuch as the public will not wish to buy local newspapers that do not have good local coverage. Costs are important, however, because even at local level it is difficult and expensive to introduce new newspapers.

The issue that we are addressing will not go away. In this place we should always be mindful of the importance of ensuring the freedom of the press. Concern about concentration of ownership has reached the point where the Government must consider whether a clear statement is necessary, along with some legislative changes, to make matters clear.

My party and I tend to be very much against control from regulation and censorship of the press, broadcasting or any other medium. That is the principle that we adopt as a starting point. That does not mean that we fail to recognise that there is a need, regrettably, for regulation and control. Our starting point, however, is that we are not in favour of introducing regulations if we can find an alternative way forward. But—this is an important but —if we want to have a free press, and a genuinely free one, whether it is free from commercial, political and social pressures, or any other form of pressure, the press must be responsible. It must show a willingness to respond to public opinion, whether expressed in the House or in a wider arena. If it fails to do so, it becomes extremely difficult for those of us who want to uphold its freedom and right of access to information to defend it as robustly as we would like. Some areas of the popular press are not doing the cause of freedom of the press all that much justice in the way in which they conduct their affairs.

11.4 am

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

I am glad to have the opportunity to address the House immediately after the contribution of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), who usually talks good sense in newspaper debates. I shall try to take up one or two of his arguments, especially those on concentration of ownership and the responsibility of the popular press.

The hon. Gentleman described the debate initially as esoteric, and that was a pretty accurate adjective. The motion in the name of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) reveals, as the hon. Gentleman said, the somewhat uneasy — I think that he used the word ambivalent — relationship between politicians and the press. It is something of a love-hate relationship. On the politicians' side, at least, the trouble lies with our impotence. There is virtually no ministerial responsibility for the press, and there is certainly no political responsibility for what appears in it. We are dealing with a largely unfettered and deregulated industry.

The world of government impinges upon the world of newspapers with only one weak and ineffective section of the Fair Trading Act 1973, which is in some disarray as a result of curious decisions, to say the least, by successive Secretaries of State. Against this background, press debates tend to be rather empty affairs, and not only in terms of attendance in the Chamber, in which politicians become preachers or, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), court jesters. There are others who are complainers. Politicians tend to moralise, pontificate, joke and grumble in the knowledge that they have no power to back up their criticisms.

In his rather lengthy sermon, all 59 minutes of it, the hon. Member for Hammersmith—it could be described as his longer catechism — did zero in on the two key themes that trouble all watchers of the press: concentration of ownership and editorial standards.

The debate is timely in terms of concentration of ownership. One of the troubles with recent press debates is that they have almost always taken place after a decision has been made to change the concentration of ownership in a way that has been unacceptable to many of us. At least this debate is taking place, unusually, before the latest and pretty transparent manoeuvre of Mr. Rupert Murdoch has taken place.

As we all know, it seems that Mr. Rupert Murdoch is attempting to take over the Financial Times. According to the City press this morning, he has bought more shares, increasing his stake to over 15 per cent. I think that only a few individuals would accept at face value some of his statements about being a friendly investor.

We need to reflect for a moment on Mr. Murdoch's aims and ambitions. He is easy to portray as the proprietor whom we all love to hate, but he is a remarkable manager as well as a remarkable acquisitor. The fact that we have a prosperous and expanding newspaper industry for the first time in many years is largely to his credit. He was the man who, more than anyone else, broke the stranglehold of restrictive practices which were engaged in by the print unions, which were throttling both managerial and journalistic enterprise in what used to be called Fleet street.

It is unfair to portray Mr. Murdoch as an across-the-board destroyer and underminer of editorial standards, although some of his publications do, in my view, disgrace the very name of journalism. I shall say something about tabloids in a moment. Other of Mr. Murdoch's titles are publications of genuine quality whose editorial standards he has raised. I think of The Sunday Times in this country and The Australian in Australia. In the world of financial journalism—that is what we shall be talking about if we come to debate a takeover of the Financial Times—Mr. Murdoch has consistently spent money wisely in improving the financial pages of his newspapers by hiring good editors and journalists. We have only to consider the much higher reputation nowadays of the Business News section of The Sunday Times following Mr. Murdoch's takeover to realise that he has done some good somewhere in improving editorial standards.

It is clear that Mr. Murdoch believes in the concentration of ownership. Incidentally, there is nothing too new about this belief. Fleet street has often seen the concentration of ownership. We have heard this morning about the domination of the old press barons. I was reminded of the verse about two dominant families about 30 years ago. It went something like this: When round the public works we looked, two pressing needs at once appeared; To dam for ever Beaverbrook, and drain the mud from Rothermere. Many years ago it was felt that the concentration of ownership had to be reduced, and that is the feeling now, but it is difficult to know what to do about it. Mr. Murdoch has a reputation for concentrating his ownership. For example, in Australia seven of every 10 newspapers bought by the newspaper-reading public are owned by him. In the United Kingdom he has five titles —The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, the News of the World and Today. If the Financial Times is added as a sixth scalp, that will, in my view, represent an unacceptable concentration of economic and editorial power.

I hope that the Government share that view. They have been pretty mealy-mouthed about their attitude to newspaper takeovers in the past. I was not the least reassured by the exchanges in which the hon. Member for Gordon and I participated on Wednesday afternoon. When pressed for a debate before a decision on the takeover of the Financial Times and for a clear statement that there would be a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, what did my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say? He addressed these remarkably unreassuring words to me: I assure my hon. Friend that we shall apply the Act as it is intended to be applied."—[Official Report, 24 November 1987; Vol. 123, c. 256.] That must take the prize for an ambiguous piece of waffle.

I am worried about the criteria on which the Government seem to decide whether to refer a newspaper takeover to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. It seems that they do it by numbers, and the numbers on which they rely are circulation figures. The Today newspaper was allowed to be acquired without so much as a murmur from Lord Young, the lord high deregulator himself, on the ground that it represented only 2.5 per cent. of national newspaper circulation. I am worried about the Financial Times, which represents less than 2 per cent, of national newspaper circulation. If the Government think that numbers are the only thing that matter, why not let Mr. Murdoch have another 2 per cent.? Such an attitude needs to be warned and spoken against today.

The Financial Times is one of the finest newspapers in the world. It is a British newspaper that has real international stature. Long ingrained editorial standards, accuracy, objectivity and rationality shine out as beacons of excellence across the darkening scene of contemporary journalism. If there can be a case for defending the status quo in newspaper publishing, the Financial Times is surely a cast iron one.

The newspaper industry is a deregulated industry and Parliament cannot defend the status quo except by one feeble mechanism—the section of the Fair Trading Act 1973 that gives the Secretary of State power to refer an acquisition to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. However, the precedents are disturbing. The former Secretary of State for Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), let through The Sunday Times, and The Times and I have already mentioned the debate about the Today newspaper. If one examines the decisions that have been taken, one might as well give Mr. Murdoch a free pass.

Mr. Renton

Before my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) leaves the point about Mr. Murdoch's interest in the Financial Times, it would be fair to add to his quotation the exchange in the House on 25 November, the final words of my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). He said: I share my hon. Friend's admiration for the Financial Times, which is one of this country's strongest journals and has a great international reputation. We shall have a duty to address the Act if anyone attempts to acquire a controlling interest".— [Official Report, 25 November 1987; Vol. 123, c.256.]

Mr. Aitken

Only an hon. Member who had served in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as my hon. Friend has done, could possibly rise to the clarion call of a Minister being about to address an Act.

Mr. Renton

It is crystal clear.

Mr. Aitken

My hon. Friend may find it crystal clear.

That is what comes of having a first-class degree and a track record in the Foreign Office. We humbler mortals do not find it quite so clear, but I welcome the note of hope that my hon. Friend has injected into the debate. I hope that addressing the Act means using it to refer any such acquisition to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

The Minister faces a genuine problem. The case against allowing Mr. Rupert Murdoch to own the Financial Times is quite subtle. If, as it is rumoured, he is prepared to divest himself of The Times to do so, the case against Mr. Murdoch is about nuances of influence, not about the abuse of power; editorial reputation rather than editorial standards; and titles rather than circulation figures. Above all, it is about one's perception of Mr. Rupert Murdoch and his style of management, and the prejudices for and against him.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

A short while ago my hon. Friend said that Mr. Rupert Murdoch had dramatically improved editorial standards in the financial section of The Sunday Times. Therefore, I am puzzled by his anxiety.

Mr. Aitken

I do not think that my hon. Friend has followed my argument. I was acknowledging that because I said that this was a grey area for Ministers. It is about nuances and editorial reputations against editorial standards. I accept that Mr. Murdoch may have raised editorial standards in some of his journals, but that does not mean necessarily that he will uphold the editorial reputation of the Financial Times. These exchanges illustrate that these are deep waters for the grey-faced cost accountants of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Unless Parliament is prepared to step in and revise the criteria for newspaper ownership along the lines of the Broadcasting Act 1981, I fear that the Financial Times, which was founded by one free-booter — Brendan Bracken—is likely to end up in the arms of another. We need a reform of the Fair Trading Act and a strengthening of its provisions. Above all, we need the promise of a debate on the matter, so that the will of Parliament can speak before a national institution changes hands.

In conclusion, on the subject of editorial standards to which the hon. Member for Hammersmith referred, as usual we have the classic curate's egg. Parts of the newspaper industry's standards are rather good, and getting better. We must not forget that the last year or so has seen the birth of a really good national newspaper, The Independent, which has given a tremendous fillip to quality journalism in Britain. All credit must be given to the editor of that newspaper and his team, who have forced noticeable improvements on the Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian. What might be called the daily bread of serious journalism is probably better in Britain than anywhere else in the world. I dare to say that the same is true of weekly journalism and the provincial press. Not until we reach the tabloids does the scene become ghastly. Should we worry about the tabloids? Who really cares whether the Daily Star slides into pseudo-pornography to the extent that it is becoming the "Daily Bonk? Who is worried whether The Sun and the News of the World serve up a permanent diet of excrescences of bad taste to their readers? No one has to buy those papers. In the words of Mr. Randolph Hearst, No one ever went bust underestimating public taste. That is what the proprietors of those newspapers are doing.

On reflection, however, we should not indefinitely take a totally laissez-faire attitude towards editorial standards of tabloids. We should care when people get hurt by tabloid journalism. Families get hurt and institutions, such as the monarchy, can rock and sway on their foundations if they are subjected to the pressure that tabloid journalism is introducing into contemporary communication. If we do not make an effort to check the slumping standards of tabloid journalism, the situation will get worse.

My only criticism of the hon. Member for Hammersmith's speech about editorial standards is that, having headlined part of his speech with a few items of untrue and unfair reporting, they seemed to be mechanical episodes about manholes and bin liners. We must remind ourselves that ordinary people get badly hurt.

To illustrate that point, with his permission, one need look no further than my personal friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames) who, a week or two ago, was featured prominently in the Daily Mail under a headline and story which implied that his marriage was in trouble, and that his friends were worried about the strain he was under in the House as a result. That was an unpleasant and distressing story. On his behalf, I am glad to put on record that the story is a total falsehood, a wicked fabrication and a calumny. The worst thing about it is that Mr. Adam Helliker of the Daily Mail, the journalist who wrote the story, published it in bad faith. He had spoken to my hon. Friend and had extracted from him a robust and total denial which was completely suppressed. I know that my hon. Friend can look after himself. He has considered the option of litigation and decided not to take that expensive course, or even to bother with the toothless pekinese watchdog, the Press Council. Perhaps my remarks on the record of the House will give him some redress.

Mr. Soley

I hope that I did not give the impression that the examples which I gave were purely mechanical. They affected groups of people. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to speak about what has happened to individual citizens, but we must acknowledge that the examples about AIDS and racism pick out a group of people and whip up hatred towards them which already exists. That is dangerous, because it is so easy for politicians and others to capitalise on it. That was something that happened in pre-Nazi Germany.

Mr. Aitken

I entirely accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He was right when he referred to groups of individuals who get hurt. Time and again we have seen examples, which we have all quoted, of tabloid journalism at its most distasteful, and getting worse. I do not think that I am alone in having a sympathetic worry about the ceaseless hounding, misrepresentation and innuendo towards the Prince and Princess of Wales. Even the grandest family in the realm cannot be expected to put up indefinitely with a siege of paparazzi and what looks like a continuous smear campaign of tabloid journalism. Tabloids should realise that ordinary people are getting pretty sick of what they are reading in that regard.

However, something is stirring because here in Parliament not only are we debating this subject today, but shortly we shall debate at least two quite important Bills introduced by private Members which, for the first time that I can remember, seek perhaps to put a serious new fetter on the press. One is the Right of Privacy Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), and the other is the Unfair Reporting and Right of Reply Bill. My reaction a year or two ago would have been that, in a free society such as ours, we should not need to have those new restrictions on a free press, because that is what they may amount to. But, just as in the famous legal example of Mr. Justice Wendell Holmes that free speech did not include the right to shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre, a free press does not include the right to continue to carry out some of the excesses that the tabloids have been carrying out. They have only themselves to blame if Parliament now starts to introduce legislation which it would never have wanted to introduce. Nevertheless, it is probably the sort of discussion that Parliament should have to change the scene of journalism for the future.

11.21 am
Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). He and his family have strong interests in the press. I, too, have an interest on a different scale. The hon. Gentleman may have been connected with the Beaverbrook days of the Daily Express. I am the chairman of Tribune and the circulation is a little different. I agree with what the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) said about the ambivalent relationship between the House and the press. Sometimes we get it wrong. We tend to talk about balance. The hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), who spoke for the Liberal party, referred to that. Opposition Members, often justifably, complain about it, but I am not sure that is the main problem with the popular press.

The problem is not so much the specific political views, but the trivialisation, and making ephemera of that which should matter — the quest for the new sensation from day to day and the reducing of all to common pap. We see that exemplified in relation to Conservative Members, but at least those individuals have a certain position of power so that they can protect themselves. People such as the council workers mentioned in the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) do not have the means to protect themselves. Few people, unless they are extremely wealthy, can risk taking a libel action to defend themselves. Therefore, there is a personal and private aspect to the matter.

I am interested in the endorsement of The Sunday Times by the hon. Member for Thanet, South. He said that Murdoch had had a good influence because the Business Section was good. That is true — the Business Section has improved if we can get as far as page 54 on a busy Sunday. Perhaps it is for the same reason that the Financial Times is such a notable British newspaper. It is simply that those who are concerned with business, those who read the news about shares and the stock exchange, must get it right. The Financial Times has to be good because it matters to its readers. That is why the Financial Times and the Business Section of The Sunday Times are so accurate.

There is propaganda in the tabloid press, but we do not get it in the news about business and stocks and shares in the Financial Times because its readers who are about to invest as a result of their understanding of the newspaper must get it right. However, when one looks at the rest of The Sunday Times, one cannot claim that it has improved. On the contrary, the newspaper has deteriorated badly. That is as serious as the problem in the tabloid press.

This has been a bad year for freedom. It is the centenary year of bloody Sunday, which occurred in November 1887. The police commissioners of London banned the use of Trafalgar square for meetings and demonstrations. A huge rally took place, the crowd was attacked and at least one participant was killed. That day went down in Labour history as bloody Sunday. It is interesting that that square was seen as a symbol both of the right of assembly and of freedom of speech. Now the technology has changed. The defence of the freedom of speech has changed, and in many ways it is more difficult. When ideas and concepts were spread through assembly, it was possible for a great diversity of views to be known. With expensive technologies we have seen not just a slow decay, but a sharp movement and a concentration of power and monopoly. Today, there cannot be the same response as there was to that demonstration in 1887, to draw attention to a matter. Three people — Maxwell, Stevens and Murdoch — control matters because they own 80 per cent, of the popular press. That is an enormous and terrifying triple monopoly because through the popular press should come our understanding of what is happening in the world, our knowledge on information and ideas.

Some people say that not much attention is paid to the ideas, but alongside that accretion of power in a few hands there has been a change in the social pattern. For example, there has been a huge change in work patterns. At one time, at 10.30 am or at lunchtime people gathered in various corners of the factory for their morning break or lunch. They would discuss the paper, and the shop steward would say, "That's rubbish," or the man in the corner would say, "Well, that's rubbish." There was a critical approach, not because those people were all conscious students, but because they discussed the newspaper as they met together.

That is no longer the work pattern, nor is it the social pattern that prevails in the home. People are now infinitely more isolated in their participation in the sphere of ideas than they used to be. That is one of the differences between unemployment today and in the 1930s. At that time there was a community in which the unemployed still participated socially. Now they isolate themselves and there is one vehicle, radio and television, through which they get their understanding and ideas. That is serious. Without that interchange between the purveyors of information and those to whom it is fed, all our lives and actions would atrophy. That is the problem that we face.

Let us look at the Government's response. It is no use the Minister using the phrase about addressing himself to the Act. Already there has been a takeover by Murdoch almost within 48 hours of a good popular newspaper, Today. What was the Government's reason for not referring that to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission? The reason that they gave was that it did not matter too much. It was only 3 per cent. Like the housemaid's baby, it was only a small one. They concentrated on the 3 per cent, and ignored the fact that that gave Mr. Murdoch, one man, over 35 per cent, ownership of the popular press. It is terrifying that such concentration should have taken place.

We have seen Mr. Murdoch's powers elsewhere. Figures in relation to Australia show that he has a majority holding in publishing. Parallel with this fearsome monopoly ownership in the press, a shift is taking place in the Government's thinking about broadcasting. There are two major documents dealing with the future of broadcasting—the Peacock report and the Green Paper. The Peacock report says that new technologies have taken control and we cannot put them under control or regulation. There is some virtue in regulation because it has enabled diversity of opinion to flourish in our broadcasting system. If it had been left as it was, there would have been a monopoly and trivialisation of broadcasting. Regulation has emancipated a variety of views, programmes and political attitudes. That will no longer happen if the Peacock report is put into practice. Peacock says that as we cannot control the technology, let us lie back, close our eyes and think of London.

Peacock's reason for saying that we are unable to continue to control broadcasting in this way is that it is claimed that satellite broadcasting cannot be controlled. In other words, the basic report on which the Government are functioning in relation to television provides a total frame for the monopoly ownership of the press. Messrs Maxwell and Murdoch are buying into satellite broadcasting. Two of the three people who control virtually the whole popular press in this country are buying into satellite broadcasting. If it is unregulated— as the Peacock report suggests it will be, and which would be in line with the policies of this ideological Government who say that privatisation and private capital are all that matters—we can imagine what will be the picture in a few years' time.

This has been a bad period for the freedom of the press. We have seen the effect of Government action in relation to the freedom of the press. Let us consider what has happened to the freedom of the spoken word in broadcasting. It is not only the future about which we need to be concerned, but what has happened over the past two years that is frightening. Two years ago, the Government objected to a programme about Northern Ireland called "Real Lives". Hon. Members will remember the programme. The Government wanted it banned. The BBC resisted and said, "We believe that this is a fair programme and it should go ahead". The Government were forced to intervene. The Home Secretary used his vestigial powers to intervene by a direct approach to the governors to ensure that the film was not put on. Two years ago, in defence of the freedom of broadcasting, the broadcasters resisted the Government's intervention.

Eighteen months later, there was another series of programmes called "Secret Society", including a programme about the Zircon satellite. In the intervening period there had been a series of attacks by the chairman of the Tory party. For two years he maintained a war of attrition against the broadcasters. We remember particularly his ludicrous analysis of the reporting of the Libyan bombing. As a result of that, he created exactly the situation that he had sought to create. Instead of courageously resisting, the broadcasters were now afraid and applied a piece of self censorship. In 18 months, they had moved from resisting censorship to applying self censorship.

They withdrew that programme but, lo and behold, their action did not even work. The tragedy of self censorship is not that it prevents censorship; it lowers the threshold at which censorship begins. When the broadcasters withdrew, they weakened their position. After the Zircon programme was withdrawn, there followed 18 months of reduction of the threshold of intervention. The special branch invaded the Scottish BBC. That was the way in which the centenary year of bloody Sunday opened. An important legal problem has not yet been settled. The incident took place only half a mile from my home. I would not have believed that such an invasion of the Scottish BBC could have taken place, nor that the special branch could have treated the broadcasters with such contempt. Two years ago they were able to resist attacks from the chairman of the Tory party, but these attacks weakened their resolve to resist. They applied self censorship to try to cope with the situation, but that simply lowered the threshold at which intervention took place. A few months after the Zircon affair something else happened. Ten weeks of preparation was put into the "Spycatcher" programme and it was then pulled out. Resistance was weakened, a programme was withdrawn, and the next time no programme was made.

The record in the press has been one of increasing monopolisation. Events in broadcasting and in the press have come together this year. We can get no assurance about the third threat facing the freedom of the word— value added tax. Some hon. Members might remember the great work of Milton, Areopagitica, in which he attacked state intervention. He did so not in the interests of his own party or of parliamentary revolutionists, but in defence of the reactionaries of the period. He said that they, too, must have their freedom. When printing was developed, both Church and state applied censorship. In 1694, through the work of Milton and others, censorship was removed. It was replaced by a financial censorship, the beginning of stamp duty which lasted for 200 years. In addition to censorship and monopoly, Britain is now being threatened by financial censorship — the imposition of VAT. The Newspaper Society says that, if VAT is imposed, we shall witness the loss of 7,000 jobs, the closure of a dozen dailies and of up to 1,000 weeklies. It would also have a terrible effect on public and academic libraries. Public libraries could obtain repayment for the VAT, but academic libraries could not. They would be clobbered by VAT and by the increased price of books as a result of the reduction in the sale of books. The price of a book would increase considerably, by about 20 per cent, if it followed the 15 per cent. tax. That too is an attack on the freedom of the word.

Many hon. Members raised this issue during the election and we did not get satisfactory replies. The Prime Minister said: If anyone tried to put VAT on children's clothes and shoes, they would never, never get it through the House." —[Official Report, 7 July; Vol. 119, c. 192.] The right hon. Lady doth protest too much. She also said that she had no intention of imposing VAT on food, but, of course, she has already done so.

In 1979, when some of us said that the Government were preparing to double VAT, the then Chancellor said that the Government had no intention of doubling VAT. Fifty days after the election, VAT went up from 8 to 15 per cent., just 1 per cent. short of doubling. So much for Treasury assurances. We are right to be afraid and we are even more right to be afraid that that further element of tax will come about. Although the Prime Minister said that she would never put tax on food — and yet has done so—she has not yet given a commitment that she will not put VAT on books and publications.

On 19 November, the Prime Minister wrote to me as follows: As you know it is customary for the Government to express its intentions on taxation at Budget time—and only then. I had asked for an assurance that there would be no VAT on books. She continued: In the wholly exceptional circumstances of the General Election campaign, I gave undertakings about a number of specific VAT zero rates. Many politicians give undertakings in the exceptional circumstances of general elections. The Prime Minister went on: These are firm commitments which the Government stands by. But, that apart, the convention to which I have referred holds good. The letter continues: I have made the position perfectly clear … and I have already given a firm commitment to reject any proposals which would restrict the Government's ability to use zero-rating. She carefully avoids, however, giving any assurance of the kind that was given in relation to food and to children's clothes and shoes in the "exceptional circumstances" of the general election. Moreover, not one of those commitments remains.

Mr. Butterfill

The hon. Gentleman predicts cataclysmic effects if the tax were introduced. As it already exists in the Common Market, can he produce evidence to show that the press there is less vigorous than ours or its standards of erudition lower?

Mr. Buchan

On the contrary, there is probably now no worse popular press than that in Britain. That was not my point. Other countries have far more generous laws protecting small journalists. For example, in France there are provisions for distribution, which is the fifth means of censorship in this country. The hon. Gentleman's comment is therefore irrelevant. I have referred to the analysis of the situation made by the Newspaper Society and by the Library Association. Moreover, Lord Stockton reached exactly the same conclusions as I have about the dangers. Short of referring to Churchill, I could scarcely call in aid a more notable ally from the Tory party than Macmillan.

In addition to the triple monopoly of the popular press and the threats to publication, distribution is run not by a triumvirate but by a double act—John Menzies and W. H. Smith. I began by referring to Tribune. I am the unpaid chairman—in fact it costs me money—of a small journal, which is the one publication that expresses something of the broad Left position in this country. The problem is that retailers will not begin ensuring numbers of papers until sales have built up, so it is very difficult for a small journal to break through. This applies as much to other small journals as to Left-wing political publications.

In France, those who own and organise distribution outlets must take and display all publications requested. There is an element of cost, which I am quite prepared to accept, but all distributors then have to carry the publication. That would be a step forward in this country to loosen the tight squeeze preventing dissemination of many publications.

The saving grace of this country is that we probably have the best, most open, diverse and high quality programmes of any broadcasting organisation. The freedom of the word has been carried through radio both to this country and abroad. Like the Peacock report on television, the Green Paper on radio contains the same threat—privatisation. Two frequencies are to be taken from public broadcasting by commercial broadcasting, without the requirement for diversity and information. The Green Paper states that commercial radio wil be "more lightly regulated." In other words, the basic formula for broadcasting in this country — the requirement to inform, educate and entertain—will not apply. The BBC, which has such a regulation imposed, will then have to compete.

We had hoped for a development of community radio so that the voices of groups and areas could be heard, but that is also to become commercial. This year we have seen direct censorship, the threat of financial censorship and the censorship resulting from the narrow monopoly of control. The glory of the word in Britain — radio — is now also under threat. It has been a terrible year in which to celebrate the centenary of bloody Sunday. We must fight against this. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith has described a number of ways in which this might be done. People such as those described by the hon. Member for Thanet, South should have the right to reply. Those of us who have been involved in defending individuals know how difficult that is to ensure. The right to reply must be imposed by law. We also need the right to prevent over-monopoly in relation to the Financial Times. The Government should say that enough is enough and that there must be no increase in ownership of press titles beyond a certain percentage. This could be done by limits on shareholdings, numbers of titles, and so on, but it must be done.

We need a media enterprise board to help launch new ventures. In Sweden, new journals are assisted by sharing newsprint and subsidising its use. Why should we not do the same? It is part of information and education. We also need an ombudsman to decide whether there should be a right to reply because poor people cannot risk ruin by taking legal action. That is the way forward.

It would be remiss of me not to mention one further aspect. We have a mish-mash of Government control and responsibility in relation to broadcasting. It is extraordinary that the same Ministry—the Home Office—which is in charge of censorship is also charged with ensuring freedom of the press. The very Department that is in charge of the special branch is supposed to be protecting the broadcasting organisation that was invaded by special branch. I make no bones about this. I fought for a long time to establish a Ministry for the arts and media to look after communications, the press, radio and television. I lost that battle—that is one reason why I speak from the Opposition Back Benches — but that battle is well worth fighting and it is a major element in the fight to restore freedom of the press to its proper place in this country.

11.48 am
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

There was a time when the Bible was regarded as subversive literature and banned. There is still a time when the Bible is regarded as subversive literature and banned. Books are still burnt, newspaper editors threatened and newspaper offices destroyed. Dictators throughout the world, from Chile to the Soviet Union, stand the freedom of the press on its head. They use it to put about their own propaganda and disinformation. They have the freedom of the press, but their people do not.

We politicians, too, recognise the power of the press. In particular, we pay attention to our own local papers. When I was elected earlier this year, I commissioned a profile of my constituency. To my amazement, I found that there were 16 local papers. I cannot rush around trying to keep up with them all to feed them information about what I am doing. I hope that they report me fairly, and give me a reasonable amount of coverage. I also hope for accuracy. I remember that when, a few years ago, I fought a constituency in the east end of London, the press published a photograph of me with my bicycle beside the caption, "A pony enjoys a winter frolic." That sort of inaccuracy is, of course, forgivable. What is unforgivable is when one's words are taken, twisted and distorted, and used for other purposes. Even when we are in this House, we know perfectly well that the press is always waiting for us outside. It may be suspended, but that does not matter; the cameramen and reporters are waiting for us there.

It is up to us to use the press as responsibly as we can, and to hope for responsible treatment from it in return. Of course, there are difficulties, and I agree entirely with the part of the motion that refers to the falling standard of honesty and integrity of some newspapers". Hon. Members on both sides are rightly critical of the appalling standards of journalism in too many of the tabloids. There has been harassment of the royal family, and a preoccupation with boobs and bonks that one would imagine was particularly inappropriate today because of the spread of AIDS. Surely we should be looking to those newspapers to give a responsible lead to the public, instead of leading them downwards.

The Press Council has been referred to as "that toothless pekinese". It is true that it has little power and that newspapers can ignore its rulings. But the way forward is not to impose legislation on the press. That would be a dangerous path. If the press operates by permission of the Government and its rules are enshrined in legislation, it is all too easy for Governments of any political colour to change the rules and say that the press cannot do things in such and such way in future, because the Government think it is wrong. That would be a retrograde step.

There must be more self-regulation in the press. I want the Press Council to be run more by the members of the journalists' profession, possibly on the same lines as the professional body to which I belong — the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors — whose general council has its own rules, disciplines its members and will expel them if need be.

If journalists do not put their own house in order, the Government may well step in—I should be reluctant to see that happen—and do it for them. That would be a dangerous step and could be the first towards subversion of liberty.

1.53 am
Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on introducing the debate and giving the House the opportunity to discuss this subject. It has been a very interesting debate so far.

It is a clichéthat we have a free press in this country. I suppose we do in the sense that anyone has the legal right to start a newspaper if he is minded to do so. That is rather like saying that everyone is free to dine at the Ritz. The freedom of the press is a freedom for millionaires. I hold it to be self-evident that the rights to know and to express oneself are basic to democracy. Everyone should have the right to information, news and opinion, and the right of access to the printed word and the air waves, as long as those media are not used to incite violence, racial hatred or sexual discrimination. We cannot be free to make up our own minds or make informed choices if we do not have a free flow of information and the right to demand accurate answers from those in positions of responsibility and power.

In an age of mass communication, the power to control information is the power to enslave. No reasonable person could be other than concerned and alarmed that nearly all our communications systems are not considered a public service but are owned and controlled by a few wealthy individuals, multinational media conglomerates and unaccountable public corporations. That is especially blatant in the press. Four companies dominate national newspaper circulation in Britain — Murdoch's News International, Maxwell's Mirror Group, Lord Stevens' Express Group and Viscount Rothermere's Associated Press.

Local newspapers show a similar pattern of concentration of ownership. No new provincial morning newspaper has been launched to compete with another local daily since the first world war.

Mr. Corbett

May I put in a plug for the Birmingham Daily News, which is published four mornings a week in the city of Birmingham. It is a free sheet and it is in direct competition with The Birmingham Post, which is paid for.

Mr. Leighton

I am delighted to hear that. However, as far as I know, no paid-for morning provincial daily newspaper has opened since the first world war. There has certainly been a growth of free sheets, and I am pleased to hear of any diversity. Unfortunately, many of them have shaky finances and do not last long. I hope that the Birmingham one will.

No new evening newspaper has been started in competition with another in Britain—to my knowledge — since the 1930s. That is so even in London, where there was an attempt to open another evening newspaper, which failed. Generally it is true that the number of newspapers in Britain has been declining for 50 years. Equally worrying is the fact that cross-ownership means that these companies are also major providers of other forms of mass communications too, such as television, radio and films.

The Government seem to have no objection—I shall listen to what the Minister has to say about this—to so many media outlets being in the hands of their rich and powerful supporters and being run as means of amassing huge private fortunes. The Government are a monopolist's dream. They have done nothing to stem the lurch to monopoly, nor do they object to the way in which standards of journalism have been depressed and debased by the proprietors. Indeed, the Government spend their time on other concerns, such as attacking press freedom on their own account—banning the Zircon programme, raiding the New Statesman's offices, and breaking down the doors of the BBC in Scotland in the process—with their absurd, systematic attempts to gag the press and stop it printing allegations from "Spycatcher". They have used the Contempt of Court Act 1981 to try to suppress the reporting of High Court hearings in the "Spycatcher" case, and have used the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to gain access to photographs taken by journalists. That was done recently at Bristol and is being done now at Wapping.

The editor of the Mail on Sunday, Stewart Steven, explained: When a reporter or photographer goes out for his newspaper, he goes on behalf of the editor and the readers, and on behalf of no other agency. The moment it is thought by the community at large that he is answering to another body his position becomes totally hopeless and dangerous. It is an important principle that, in this country, newspapers are not state agencies and the public should know it. Other editors have said the same thing. How else can all this be described except as an authoritarian Government intimidating journalists and using the courts to control the flow of information? It seems clear that nothing will be done by this Government, voluntarily, to foster diversity.

We all saw the alacrity with which the Government allowed Murdoch to gobble up Today. Now we see Murdoch buying into the Financial Times. We admire the erudite circumlocutions of the Minister when he "addresses the Fair Trading Act 1973", but, in common with the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), I hope that we will get away from such nuances. The Minister should say clearly in the House that if Murdoch tries to take over the Financial Times, it will be intolerable and unacceptable. I am happy to pay a compliment to the Financial Times. It is a splendid, objective newspaper. It would be a scandal if that newspaper were taken over and added to the empire of Rupert Murdoch.

It is clear that diversity will not result from market forces. It is the high cost of publishing, distributing and promoting newspapers that is the major reason why the ownership of the media remains with an elite. If society wants press diversity, it must see that those facilities are available to all as a public service. It is not as though there is no readership for other newspapers. It is the economics of current publishing practice that destroys them. For example, when the Daily Herald folded in 1964, it had a circulation five times that of The Times. When the News Chronicle closed in 1960, it had a circulation five times that of The Guardian. Indeed, the combined readership of the Daily Herald, the News Chronicle and Reynolds News—all referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith—was 9.3 million, yet they all closed. It was the shortage not of readers that brought about the collapse of those papers, but of advertising revenue. That is the decisive factor.

At the moment, unless so-called newspapers go for sex, violence and soap stories to obtain mass circulation, or appeal to middle-class values to get a middle class readership, they will not obtain sufficient advertising. That is not a recipe for press diversity. If we want that diversity, and if we want to encourage a free flow of information, we must make facilities available to all who can provide the readership. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith suggested a number of ways in which that could be done.

If we are to have consumer choice we must go further. We must break up the existing media monopolies. The market share of any one owner should be limited. A number of hon. Members have hinted that they are thinking along similar lines. Cross-ownership should be outlawed. The private ownership of newspapers, radio, television, films and cable should be kept separate. That is done in some other countries.

Another priority that has been raised by a number of hon. Members is that we should have a legal, enforceable, statutory right of reply. We all know of people who have been traduced in the press, and examples have been given today. I wish to reiterate the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith. Before the election, there was a dirty tricks department that circulated fabrications to certain newspapers, which were only too anxious to receive them. Those fabrications concerned Labour councils.

Once the fabrications and lies were printed, they went into general circulation and were quoted many times by many others. I shall give a couple of examples. There was a report in the Mail on Sunday headed, "Race Spies Shock". That article said: Race commissars in a Left-wing borough are recruiting 180 Thought Police to patrol schools for prejudice. And they will be paid out of a £5 million Government grant intended to promote racial harmony. That article was written by Peter Dobbie and Peter Day. The truth of the matter was that a decision to employ race relations advisers at Brent schools had been agreed by all the political parties of the council, which was then Conservative controlled. The council took the decision to comply with the Home Office directive.

The Daily Express picked up one such story, and the headline ran: Loony Left in Wendy House Row. Toy 'is sexist'". The article said: The Loony Lefties have struck again—this time at that children's playtime favourite, the Wendy House. Labour-controlled Ealing Council in West London reckons this top toy should now be referred to in schools as the 'homes corner'." That matter was never even discussed by Ealing council. The Daily Mail ran a story with the headline: Rhyme without reason … Now Loony Left rewrites children's nursery favourite 'Ba Ba green sheep'". The article said: Ba, Ba black sheep — one of the oldest children's nursery rhymes—has been banned by a Left-wing council as 'racist'. Playgroup leaders have been told that in future children should sing 'green' sheep instead." That is sheer invention. That matter was never discussed.

Another report in the Daily Mail—there are so many that perhaps I should make this the last one—said: Staff have to ask for coffee without milk? Not black! Left-wing fanaticism has already meant that councillors and staff have to talk about coffee without milk instead of black coffee. Pure fabrication. Originally, that was printed in the Daily Mail.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

That case might be fabrication. However, one could believe that to be true, especially when one hears that an hon. Member of this House has already told a member of the catering staff, having been asked if he wanted his coffee black or white, "You should not say that. You should say with or without milk."

Mr. Leighton

I do not know who that hon. Member is. I have heard some people say that they like their coffee grey and there are a lot of grey Members on the Conservative Benches at the moment.

The stories that I have quoted state that Labour councils have taken such decisions and have instructed their staffs to do certain things. Those stories were lies. Let us not beat about the bush. Those lies were put out deliberately by a dirty tricks department and, having once been printed, they have been reprinted umpteen times and quoted by everyone. All that happened just before an election. I believe that this is disgraceful and appalling. I do not believe that we should conduct our public affairs in that way.

Mr. Soley

I am not so much concerned about the anti-Labour bit. There has always been an anti-Labour press and we can win or lose elections without that being relevant. What troubles me so deeply—I suspect it is the same for my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) — are the examples that he and I have cited. Basically we are concerned about scapegoating minority groups, especially black people and others with different sexual identities from the norm. That scapegoating of minority groups is profoundly dangerous for a democracy, especially if the press begins to whip up a hatred that already exists.

Mr. Leighton

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

Let me give another example from the Daily Mail. The article described a bizarre policy in Lambeth which would let homosexuals jump the housing queue. Gay people do not receive special treatment when housing is allocated. That is another lie. Black people, gays and minorities are scapegoated, and the assumption is made that loony Left councils have made those decisions. Let us criticise them for actual decisions that they make, but let us not fabricate lies. It is appalling to scapegoat groups and individuals, such as the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames). Not everybody is like Jeffrey Archer and able to obtain redress. We have to consider, even if reluctantly, the necessity to legislate for an enforceable right of reply. It could be administered by an ombudsman, an independent person, or a commissioner who would be able to respond quickly to complaints about lies, errors or gross bias, and who would have the power to impose sanctions. There is a crying need for that, and that has been mentioned already by many hon. Members. I look forward to the Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) is to introduce.

Before discussing new technology, I declare my interest as a member of the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades, the largest printing union. People thought that new technology would radically change the newspaper industry for the better because it would lower costs, thereby making it easier for anyone to start a newspaper, and that it would lead to diversity. We were also told that it would lead to Left-wing newspapers. I do not oppose technology. We must all embrace new technology. However, I did not believe that it would lead to diversity or the introduction of Left-wing newspapers. New technology commenced in the United States and no new Left-wing newspapers were introduced there. If I am wrong, the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), who is smiling, will perhaps tell me. The argument was that new technology would reduce labour costs. Thousands of workers were sacked in Fleet street but, according to the Royal Commission, labour makes up less than 21 per cent, of a newspaper's costs. New technology has no effect on the other costs, including major costs such as newsprint. Converting to new technology was so expensive that it destroyed the previous owners of The Daily Telegraph, who had to sell out to a Canadian. New technology is not extremely cheap and it does not solve problems.

The test for new technology was when Eddie Shah came on the scene with Today. There was a lot of bragging and hullabaloo that he was going to run rings round all the big boys and break down the monopoly. Even his "cheap" new technology launch of Today cost £22 million, which is not an insignificant sum. Since then, many tens of millions of pounds have been put into Today by a variety of people, but to what end? It has had several editors, it has had three owners and has been swallowed by the arch monopolist Rupert Murdoch, so new technology did not bring diversity. New technology is not the solution because, if the slight reduction in labour costs is applied to all newspapers, it will not improve the relative position of weaker publications or alter the relative position of competing titles.

Freedom of the press is being diminished and eroded and all of us are beginning to recognise that we need to reverse that trend. We have had a first-class debate today on the subject introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and I am certain that the House will be obliged to return to it again and again until we get it right. In fact, we may have to return to it quickly if there is any threat to the Financial Times.

12.14 pm
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

We all agree that we frequently see reports with which we are familiar in the press, but we have difficulty recognising the event that we experienced. We know that many reports in the press are anecdotal, selective, distorted and misleading. Nearly all hon. Members can recount instances when they have been grossly misreported or dealt with unfairly by the press. I can relate a recent personal example. It involved the much-vaunted Independent. The paper referred to Members' interests and the way in which Members are influenced by professional lobbyists and it referred to the British Airways lobby. The Independent examined the Register of Members' Interests and learnt which hon. Members had declared that they had been given a free flight by British Airways.

My name was among those included on the list. The implication was that anyone on that list regularly received free flights from British Airways and was therefore guaranteed to support BA in any lobbying that it made in the House. That was an appalling inference. The Independent failed to report or even consider the fact that I had flown once to New York as part of a delegation in my capacity as vice-chairman of the Back-Bench Tourism Committee. The committee flew to New York after the Libyan bombing to give evidence to Congress to show that this country was not besieged by terrorists and was safe for tourists to visit. We witnessed and publicised the opening of the new British Airways terminal in New York.

I do not apologise for the fact that British Airways gave us a free flight. We helped British Airways and British tourism. However, my flight was not reported in that context. The report implied that all those who had accepted the free flight are now the bought men of British Airways. We all find that kind of reporting extremely regrettable.

Nevertheless, I have described an anecdote. It is not the full story. Sadly, much of what we have heard from Opposition Members has also been anecdotal. It is unrepresentative of what happens in the press as a whole. I also fear that many of the allegations that the press is becoming more monopolistic and held in the hands of fewer people are far from the truth. I have researched this subject in the estimable House of Commons Library and from a publication entitled "Benn's Media Information Service". I do not know whether that publication has any connection with any hon. or right hon. Member. It is highly objective, precise and factual. Whether those are characteristics which might be redolent of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is for other hon. Members to decide.

I gained some interesting information from that publication. There are far more newspaper groups in this country than those owned by Murdoch, Maxwell and Stevens. It might be helpful if I describe all the groups. First, there is News Internatinal owned by Mr. Murdoch. It includes The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, the News of the World and Today. Secondly, there is Mr. Black's Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. Thirdly, there is Mr. Maxwell's Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, the late lamented London Daily News, the Sunday People, the Daily Record in Scotland and the Scottish Sunday Mail. The fourth group is the Guardian group including the Manchester Evening News and other provincial newspapers. Fifthly, Pearsons own the Financial Times and many local papers under the auspices of the Westminster Press. The sixth group is Associated Newspapers, owned by Lord Rothermere. It includes the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, the Evening Standard and the provincial press. The seventh group is that owned by Lord Stevens. The United Newspaper group owns the Daily Express, The Star, the Sunday Express and other provincial papers. The eighth newly formed group owns The Independent. No one has mentioned the Morning Star yet. That is owned by a co-operative, but sadly it appears at odds with some of its former supporters. There is the News on Sunday, which sadly died only a few days ago, and last, but by no means least, there is Mr. Tiny Rowland's Observer group with its provincial and foreign newspapers.

Mr. Leighton

Has not the hon. Gentleman just given facts that show that four groups own the overwhelming majority of the circulation? Three groups have 80 per cent, of the mass circulation, the tabloids. I am pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman is doing research. He has only to look at the reports of the Royal Commission on the press which give tables showing that over the past 50 years the number of titles has been diminishing all the time to understand the anxiety about that process. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that over 50 years the number of titles has diminished.

Mr. Butterfill

The hon. Gentleman may be right that over 50 years the number of titles has decreased, but I am not sure. If he will listen to me, I shall give him some statistics that I hope he will find interesting and helpful.

In the past 10 years six new national newspapers have sprung up. There was The Independent in 1986, The Star in 1978, Today in 1986, The Mail on Sunday in 1982, News on Sunday in 1987, and the late-lamented London Daily News in 1986. If we go back a little further, there is The Sun which started in 1964. Admittedly we have lost a few titles but we have gained some influential ones.

According to Benn's, there were 10 daily newspapers in 1980 and there are 12 daily newspapers today. There were seven national Sunday newspapers in 1980 but there are nine today. Therefore, in both of those groups there has been an increase of two newspapers.

Much has been said about the provincial press. I shall give the figures for weeklies, including some fortnightlies. In 1980 there were 1,494 weekly newspapers. The present figure is 1,748. Again we can see that there has been an increase in the past few years in the number of newspapers available to the public.

Since 1980 there has been no change in Associated Newspapers. The Express group consists of the same newspapers but the proprietor has changed from Lord Matthews to Lord Stevens. There has been no change in the Guardian group. Only the ownership has changed in the Mirror group from Reed to Maxwell. In the Observer group the ownership is the only thing to have changed in the past 10 years, from Thomas Bradshaw to Tiny Rowland. Only in News International has there been a significant change. There has been no change in proprietor; that is still Rupert Murdoch. However, to his original titles of News of the World and The Sun he has added The Times, Sunday Times and Today.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) sought to imply that if we were to look at the circulation all would be different. The facts do not bear him out. The two most powerful groups are owned by Maxwell and Murdoch. According to the figures from the Library, Maxwell has 21.1 per cent, of the circulation of daily newspapers, and Murdoch has 32.4 per cent., making an aggregate of 53.5 per cent. for those two large groups. In 1976, when the Labour party was in office, the two largest groups were the Mirror group with 27.5 per cent. of daily circulation and News International with 26.5 per cent. Thus the two largest groups between them had a 54 per cent, share—rather more than now.

The position is even worse in the case of the Sunday newspapers. In 1976 the Mirror Group owned 41.8 per cent, of Sunday circulation, and the largest group today, which is Murdoch's, owns only 35.3 per cent. The power of the press barons has actually diminished since 1976. The hon. Member for Newham, North-East shakes his head. I shall give him all the figures if he would like them. They are the Library's figures.

United Newspapers currently owns 20.5 per cent. of dailies and 12.7 per cent. of Sundays; Associated Newspapers owns 11.7 per cent. of dailies and 9.4 per cent. of Sundays; Maxwell owns 21.1 per cent, of dailies and 34.1 per cent. of Sundays; Murdoch owns 32.4 per cent. of dailies and 35.3 per cent. of Sundays; Lonrho owns no dailies, but 4.4 per cent. of Sundays; the Daily Telegraph plc owns 7.7 per cent. of dailies and 4.1 per cent. of Sundays; Pearson plc owns only 1.3 per cent. of dailies —not 2 per cent., as was said earlier; Guardian Newspapers Ltd. owns 3.4 per cent. of dailies, and the owners of The Independent 2 per cent.

Ownership is now very diverse: no one person controls the whole market. An entirely different position obtained in 1976. Then, Beaverbrook owned 18.5 percent. of dailies and 17.6 per cent. of Sundays; Associated Newspapers owned 12.5 per cent. of dailies; the Mirror Group owned 27.5 per cent. of dailies and 41.8 per cent. of Sundays; News International owned 26.5 per cent. of dailies and 26.2 per cent. of Sundays; Thomsons owned 2.2 per cent. of dailies and 7.1 per cent. of Sundays; Pearsons owned 1.2 per cent. of dailies; Observer Ltd. owned 3.4 per cent. of Sundays; the Daily Telegraph plc owned 9.3 per cent. of dailies and 3.9 per cent. of Sundays; and Guardian Newspapers Ltd. owned 2.2 per cent. of dailies.

I am sorry to have bored hon. Members with that catalogue of statistics. It is important, however, that such matters are put on record. Opposition Members have claimed that monopolistic proprietors increasingly control the press. My statistics, and any independent review of the market, show that assertion to be completely untrue. What is true is that there has been a significant reduction in the sections of the press that support the policy of the Labour party, which is hardly surprising in view of its current policies.

Few people find it easy to support such policies. That is the burden of the Opposition's complaint, but they cannot really complain if fewer and fewer members of the press support them, when it is clear that fewer and fewer members of the general public do so. The only remedy for the Labour party is for it to put its house in order, and revert to policies that all of us—including members of the press — would feel more able to support. Then, perhaps, we should not have the silly debates that we hear today.

12.28 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Let me begin by saying that in the Register of Members' Interests I have declared nonexecutive directorships of a newspaper publishing company and a local radio station.

I believe that the motion is flawed, because its mover and subsequent Opposition speakers have revealed their true inclinations by making a number of suggestions that are traditionally associated with the Left wing. It is argued that newspapers should be subsidised and that Left-wing councils should be defended, even though many Opposition Members do not support the defence of such councils, with their extremist views.

Mr. Soley

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Shaw

In a minute.

It is argued that there should be a media enterprise board, and there have been complaints about the treatment of minorities by the press. Minority groups are put in a position in which Opposition Members can say that they are being used as scapegoats because certain people have sought to promote those minorities to the detriment of the majorities in the areas in which those groups reside.

Mr. Soley

I should not like the hon. Gentleman to make a bad start to his speech, but he is missing the point of the argument. The argument is not about the Labour party or Left-wing councils being attacked, or about scapegoats. It is about the lies and the distortion in the press, which I believe the hon. Gentleman accepts is so. Many of his hon. Friends certainly accept it. If there is strong evidence of lies and distortion that whip up an already existing hatred for minority groups, does not the hon. Gentleman think that that is dangerous?

Mr. Shaw

I do not think that there is one person in this country, with the exception of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who does not make mistakes in his or her daily job. Mistakes are made by journalists, accountants, lawyers and other professional people, but there are people who lie when they talk to journalists.

I have received a number of complaints about the disaster that has affected many of my constituents. Complaints have been made about many ships sailing with their bow doors open. Yesterday somebody claimed that a lorry driver had been on four ships that had sailed with their bow doors open. Since the disaster there has been no substantiated evidence that ships have sailed with their bow doors open.

There was a public meeting to which families who were involved in the disaster were invited. At that meeting a lorry driver decided to make a name for himself, with the result that I received a number of telephone calls from journalists, who asked whether he had spoken the truth. Lies begin because human beings, who have no hope of promoting themselves in the media or of getting publicity, seize on an opportunity to prey on other people's misery. That is not what society wants, and that is not what the press should be concerned with, either.

This debate is about the freedom of the press. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) said that this debate was in danger of becoming a debate that is biased against success. That, too, can be associated with Opposition Members. The successful newspapers of the last few years have been those of News International. The Independent — a new newspaper — survives. The Today newspaper has failed temporarily, but perhaps it will have a new lease of life. The other new newspaper, the News on Sunday, failed dismally, despite the backing of the trade union movement—a movement that in theory ought to be able to guarantee a circulation of 8 million. However, the true circulation of the News on Sunday was 112,000, because no trade union general secretary was prepared to back it and to force it on the 8 million members of the trade union movement. He knew that the vast majority of the 8 million would not be interested in reading the News on Sunday.

Why do newspaper circulations increase or decrease? My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West came close to the answer when he referred to public sentiment and the way in which the public approach newspapers. There has been a major change in public mood. A newspaper's success depends on its ability to capture the public mood.

In the past 20 years there has been a change in mood towards positivism. In the 1960s and the 1970s it was traditional to knock Britain, and that continued into the winter of discontent of 1979, which we all remember so well. With that came a big change in attitude because people were heartily fed up with negativism. They looked for something new and positive. They were looking for Britain to become great again in the eyes of the world. That has certainly happened under this Government. Even members of the royal family drew attention to it. The Duke of Edinburgh was one of the first to point out that there was far too much knocking in the press. The press has responded to the demands of public mood and to the fact that the Government have brought about a change in attitudes. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may certainly intervene, but if they shout from a sedentary position I cannot hear them.

The desire of the nation for success and personal achievement has been reflected in recent opinion polls among the young, which show that they want opportunities to succeed and that they want those opportunities reflected in the newspapers. They want newspapers to talk about the opportunities available to them in business, pleasure, leisure and all the other matters that interest them. Rather than being able to change public mood, newspapers are changed by it. We now have a positive press that responds positively to what people want to read.

It is humbug to refer, as Opposition Members have done, to the difficulties of entering the market. It has already been pointed out that many new newspapers are starting up in this country. In addition to those new newspapers, a whole new section of the newspaper industry has grown up. It is the free newspaper industry, and the company of which I am a director is part of it. That industry earns more than £150 million a year of revenue and has created about 10,000 jobs in the past 15 years. The free newspaper industry does not only compete with or put other newspapers out of work; in many areas it complements the newspapers that are paid for. In my area the two operate side by side in a positive fashion trying to compete for stories. Sometimes the stories are wrong. I myself was not happy during the election campaign when a story appeared about me that had not been checked. Unfortunately, the source of that story was a Labour Member whom I shall not, of course, accuse of lying in the House. However, I suggest that the story given to the press was not wholly true. That is how stones become distorted. Journalists sometimes take stories from sources that are less than reliable, although the vast majority of journalists endeavour to be professional in their work.

I draw attention to the claim made earlier about the cost of entry into the newspaper market. It was said to be enormous. The group of which I became a non-executive director last year was founded 15 years ago on £500. That is not a great sum and, allowing for inflation, the equivalent would be only £5,000. I suggest that a group of five or six Labour Members club together, especially in view of the modest salary increase on 1 January, and guarantee £5,000 to start a solid Left-wing newspaper. Their only problem would be that few people would read it. That was the problem for News on Sunday. There is no difficulty in entering the market.

We have been asked, "Why are there no Left-wing newspapers in the United States?" Virtually no one there is interested in reading and listening to Left-wing views. The United States has moved on from Left-wing expression. The Communist party is virtually non-existent and the debate is between the Democrat and Republican parties, neither of which has extreme Left-wing views.

Many Conservative Members are filled with genuine tears because of the way in which the Labour party is destroying itself with its policies. We wish that there were a proper Opposition. The reason why there is not a group of newspapers which supports the Opposition's case is that the Opposition are so far adrift from the public mood. I make the Opposition an offer: if they have any difficulty in getting their newspapers printed, I shall endeavour to do everything I can to get them printed, provided they are prepared to pay the commercial rate. I am sure that we can offer the Opposition a good commercial rate with a reasonable discount for quantity, if they can find a sufficient number of people to read the newspapers.

Although it is easy to enter the newspaper market, it is not so easy to find the readership, as News on Sunday found to its cost. But even News on Sunday was distributed widely. During the summer I saw News on Sunday on sale in the newsagents in Gibraltar, copy after copy piled on high. No one wanted to read it, even in Gibraltar.

Mr. Leighton

The hon. Gentleman says that he is the director of one of the free news sheets and talks about readers not wanting to read certain newspapers. Will he give me some advice? What do I as a consumer have to do to stop people from putting some of these dreadful things through my letter box? These pieces of paper are uninvited and unsolicited and paid for by advertising. What should I do to stop these awful products that the publishers insist on thrusting down the throats of unsuspecting consumers like me? What does one have to do to let this cup pass from us? What does one have to do to remain free of the junk pieces of paper that are put into one's letter box? May we have a respite?

Mr. Shaw

Normally, I try to charge expensively for my advice, but this time I shall make an exception and give the hon. Gentleman some free advice. Any responsible free newspaper group is a member of the Association of Free Newspapers. I believe that if an hon. Member receives a letter from a resident who says that he does not want the free newspaper delivered it will not be delivered. While I was canvassing in my constituency, I saw that a number of people had put little notices in their windows or by their letter boxes saying that they did not want those articles delivered. Old-age pensioners are sometimes worried in case newspapers will be left in their letter boxes while they are away. The free newspaper company will not normally deliver if so requested. Distribution is closely controlled and managed by area managers who specifically react to individual concerns that are expressed by residents.

Mr. Renton

May I add to the excellent and free advice that my hon. Friend has given to the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton)? If the hon. Gentleman is seriously bothered by the issue which he has described—I know that many are—he may care to write to the data protection registrar, who will be able to give him and any of his constituents further advice to supplement that which has already been given to him by my hon. Friend on how the flow of irritating and unwished for bumph that comes through the letter box can be stopped.

Mr. Shaw

There has been a considerable change in the newspaper market in recent years. There may be a concentration of newspaper proprietors and ownership at any particular time, but that concentration changes over the years as all businesses change. Many newspapers have changed ownership in the past 10 years. It is interesting that in some areas there have been management buy-outs of small local newspaper groups where the management felt that it could provide a better service to the community than that provided by a large national company.

References have been made to the Government's position on the Today newspaper. I spent many years training to be an accountant and I know as an accountant that when a company gets into difficulties it is necessary that action is taken immediately. If a business or company is to be saved, one cannot hang around for months or years on end while the company is bleeding. Nowhere is this more true than in the newspaper industry. If advertisers see that a newspaper is failing, they will withdraw support immediately. When that happens, the demise of a newspaper can be extremely rapid. Today was faced with that position. It had a considerable financial deficit and was bleeding finance daily. In my view, the Government took the right decision. Indeed, it was impossible to come to any other decision.

If Labour Members are complaining about the decision, they should ask themselves where they and their supporters were at the time. If Mr. Maxwell had really wanted Today, he could have upped his offer by a few million. If he had £50 million to underwrite the Channel tunnel, why did he not have £50 million to pay for Today? The answer is that he felt that Today was not financially viable at that price for himself. Therefore, the market decided in the end. Today is now showing all the signs of recovery. As News International has managed to succeed with all its other newspapers, it appears that it is about to succeed with Today.

Although it is not strictly relevant to the motion, reference has been made to broadcasting and local radio. It has been suggested that commercial local radio does not take a responsive view to the community and that it deals solely in trivia and music. That is not true. The reality is that in opinion poll after poll, and in listenership statistics, it has been discovered by the station in which I am involved and in local radio generally in this country and in others that there is an overriding demand for music to be played on local radio. It suits the medium of local radio. It should not be thought, however, that local radio does not broadcast news. No one should believe that local radio, including local commercial radio, does not feel that it has an important role to play in the community.

The radio station in which I have been involved has recently had to deal with the terrible problems that resulted from the snow, which overcame many transport facilities and blocked many of the roads in Kent earlier this year. My local radio station also had to deal with the recent storms and gales. We set up special snow lines so that people could phone in and so that we could get emergency help to them.

During the gales and storms we set up special lines and helped many old-age pensioners who were suffering at home through lack of electricity. We helped them to know what was being done for them. We encouraged people to look for others who were suffering through lack of electricity in their villages. We tried to make sure that people were aware that help was on its way and of how long it would take to reach them.

A local radio station may feel that it can gain an audience by broadcasting music, but no such station can afford to go on the air without those services. In the morning, if people do not hear about train delays and traffic problems, and if there are not the news bulletins that people want to hear, one does not get an audience and it goes elsewhere. We in Kent enjoy the station that I have the privilege to be involved in. BBC Radio Kent also offers a good facility.

In television, we have a problem at present—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about the press?"] Broadcasting and the freedom of broadcasting were mentioned by Opposition Members and I feel that someone must reply. Therefore, I shall make a brief comment. Television is suffering from what the newspaper industry suffered from some years ago, and still suffers from to a minor extent in some areas. That problem is overmanning. We cannot continue with overmanning and the lack of freedom that it brings about because it prevents a broad selection of programmes. In television, it has inhibited independent producers from starting.

We need to see more freedom in television broadcasting. There should be more programmes from the independent sector. There should be more opportunity for a broader range of programmes, which could come about by having fewer people working on individual programmes. Then more programmes could be produced by the many members of the industry. Employment in the television industry would increase, as it has in some areas of the newspaper industry, if we got rid of the restrictive practices in television.

The industry of broadcasting and the press is determined by the public—not just by the public mood, but by the public purse. One can have a choice in any newsagent. All that is required is a decision on which newspaper proprietor will get the 20p or 30p. People have that opportunity today. The only complaint of Opposition Members can be that the newspapers do not reflect their views because they do not reflect the views of the country at large.

12.52 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

I pay tribute to my local newspaper, the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, for more than just the obvious reason. It showed the more acceptable face of British journalism when earlier this year it launched an appeal to raise £500,000 for a body scanner for the local hospital. I am pleased to say that it managed to raise the money within seven months. That was a tremendous achievement, so I happily pay tribute to the newspaper as well as to all those in the vicinity of Huddersfield and in my constituency of Colne Valley who so generously contributed towards that appeal. I am sure that the local community will benefit very much from the body scanner.

This has been a fascinating and interesting debate. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), that he is complaining not about the bias against the Labour party in the press today, but more about the danger of monopoly in the British press. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) did an absolutely superb demolition job on that argument. He proved that there is no more a monopoly in the British press today than there was 10 years ago.

Behind the Opposition's argument lies a belief that the British press is somehow hostile to their cause. They will not deny that. I have heard many people of the Left voice that complaint and it needs to be addressed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) pointed out, one has only to go to the Tea Room to see the multitude of newspapers available. My problem is always which to pick up first. There is The Times, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. There is also the Daily Mirror and The Sun. Even the Morning Star is kept in the Tea Room.

It is interesting to note that 1,748 weekly newspapers are published in this country. The Opposition may complain that their views are not put across in some of the daily newspapers, but there are many organs available which propagate Left-wing Labour policies. Three years ago an inquiry into the Left-wing press in this country found 69 newspapers, periodicals and journals tending to put forward Left-wing political views. That is quite a choice. Three years later, there may not be quite so many, but there are still a great many. The Opposition cannot deny that.

Conservative Members should therefore challenge the myth that the popular daily press is overwhelmingly Right-wing and hostile to the Labour party. Certainly, the editorials of a number of papers are Right-wing in nature and support the Conservative party, but many Conservatives know from experience that the Right-wing press will not protect them if they stray into the realms of misbehaviour. The popular press certainly enjoyed itself when the Federation of Conservative Students seemed to be misbehaving at a conference. Moreover, when the Liberal-SDP alliance got off the ground the daily press seemed to be having such a love affair with the alliance that some of us were concerned that the Liberal party and the SDP were receiving far too much favourable coverage.

Even the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has good cause to thank the popular press. After the 1983 election Sarah Benton, deputy editor of the New Statesman, argued convincingly that CND's cause had been enormously helped by the media in the job of proving that there was a choice by the sheer amount of coverage given to peace movement activities. Newspaper and television could have relegated the mass action at Greenham common and over Easter to the marginal space accorded to some mass demonstration in the past, but they chose to treat them as the most significant story of the day. That is absolutely right. CND has had enormous press coverage, which has done a great disservice to the Labour party because it has brought before the minds of the electorate the arguments for and against having a nuclear deterrent. Most people believe that we need a nuclear deterrent.

The News on Sunday was published during the past six months and has now completely failed. Opposition Members cannot stomach the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dover made clear, the public are not interested in an anti-sexist, anti-nuclear, highly political, left-of-centre newspaper. It just does not sell, and that is the problem. The hon. Member for Hammersmith advocated subsidising the newspaper industry because, in my opinion, he does not think that enough newspapers propagate his views. Such subsidising would mean that the News on Sunday, which no one wants to read, would still exist now and next year, and would run up enormous losses.

We have had a taste of what a Labour Government might do to a free press in this country. Whenever a newspaper has seriously offended either the Labour party or certain sections of it they have banned it, or tried to ban it, or tried to drive it out of business. My council — Kirklees council—stopped the local library taking News International publications, as did many other councils, merely because they did not like News International's way of doing business. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) tried to maintain a ban on News International's publications, too. When the Labour party came to power in Islington, one of the first things it tried to do was to put the Islington Gazette out of business, because that organ had been pointing out to local readers the council's political lunacies, its waste of ratepayers' money and its intolerance. Islington council wasted about £100,000 of ratepayers' money on its own alternative Left-wing newspaper. That is a good example of what subsidies for the newspaper industry under a Labour Government would almost certainly mean.

I am worried about how News on Sunday was financed. It was never going to be a profitable commercial concern; it got on to the bookstalls—and off them again—only because of the generosity of several Left-wing Labour authorities. It was not even as though those authorities were spending their ratepayers' money on the newspaper. They were spending employees' pension funds on it, which was a disgrace. I hope the Government will include such pension funds in the Local Government Bill that is now going through the House.

Brent council was advised by stockbrokers that it should not invest in News on Sunday—yet it went ahead and invested a quarter of a million pounds in the first six issues of the newspaper. It also spent an awful lot of money advertising in it. Several other councils did the same— Ealing, Camden, Lothian, Southwark and Lambeth councils, for instance. They should all be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. Councils in the north of England, too — Cleveland and Derbyshire — put money into the newspaper. We should examine how these local councils have been trying to usurp the free press by wasting ratepayers' money on maintaining uncommercial and unpopular Left-wing newspapers.

We have already discussed the problems with the press. The hon. Member for Paisley, South (Mr. Buchan) spoke of the unbiased television broadcasting that we have in this country. However, I believe that it is important that the concerns felt by some of us about the matter are voiced in this House. Television has a special place within the world of communications. It is beamed straight into the homes of families and there is a limited choice available. If television programmes show bias it is a serious matter.

The media monitoring unit was set up in 1985 and spent a year monitoring the output of the BBC and ITV. It produced a document that showed that there was a considerable amount of political bias in those companies' current affairs programmes.

One programme that survived extremely well from that study was Channel 4's "A Week in Politics". That is a highly political programme, but it illustrates that it is possible to maintain political balance when dealing with such contentious issues. However, "Panorama", supposedly the BBC's flagship, was found to have shown political bias in nearly a third of its programmes. In fact, 24 per cent, of its programmes showed bias to the Left, but only 7 per cent, showed bias to the Right.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

This is an important issue, but perhaps it is inevitable and proper that serious current affairs programmes should address Government policies and will put the Government in the position of having to explain and justify the changes that they bring forward. Surely that is a proper function of such programmes. Such an approach may be interpreted as a Leftward bias, but in reality those programmes are giving a proper, close scrutiny to Government policies.

Mr. Riddick

That is perfectly fair and I accept that. I believe that the media monitoring unit also accepted that principle. That unit studied programmes to discover whether both sides of an argument were given the opportunity to put their case. Of course, Government policies will be subject to the closest scrutiny. However, it is important that the Opposition's or the alliance's case is also given close scrutiny. The media monitoring unit showed that there was a considerable Left-wing bias.

"World in Action" came out as the most biased programme of the lot. Of the 34 programmes monitored, 10 were non-political; 13 had a Left-wing bias and four had a Right-wing bias. That is not good enough.

Some people may argue that, if we have some programmes that are biased to the Left and some biased to the Right, at the end of the day, the end product is an unbiased approach. In reality it simply gives us more biased programmes.

It is important that the BBC and the IBA should carefully consider their responsibilities for providing programmes, especially current affairs programmes, that are impartial. I hope that those authorities take that on board.

There is a great danger in arguing for more interference in the media in this country. I merely ask the television companies to consider what I have said. Certainly, I would resist any efforts made by politicians of any party to try to interfere with the press. I believe that, on balance, although the press is not perfect, we have one of the freest presses in the world. I am pleased and proud about that.

1.9 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)

All hon. Members would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on winning the ballot — that is always the first and most important thing to do — and on the broad, interesting and moderate way in which he moved the motion. Some aspects, such as the suggestion that a media board should be set up, I do not agree with, but there are many others that I do. I thank hon. Members and my hon. Friends for their contributions. Even if the House has not been well attended, we have managed to have an interesting debate. There has been much wide-ranging and thoughtful agreement and I hope that the comments that have been made will be read by the Press Council, journalists, newspaper proprietors and unionists because much of what has been said is of value.

I would like to start my remarks by quoting a character in Tom Stoppard's play "Night and Day", who said: I am with you on the freedom of the press. It is the newspapers I can't stand. Probably every hon. Member has sympathised with that comment at one moment or another. If I were to make a general comment it would be that I suspect that every hon. Member wants the best of both worlds. We would like a free and varied press in which contrary opinions can be read, but we would also like a press that is not excessively intrusive, a point strongly made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, especially affecting those who cannot defend themselves. Because we are human, we would also like a press that is interesting but that does not misrepresent or misreport us — a press that gives prominence to the jewels in our speeches and our lives as well as to our howlers. Such perfection is not likely to happen and hon. Members disagree on how to achieve that ideal world, the best of both worlds.

If we go back in history, I wonder how much of the debate our predecessors would have had in the 1930s or in the last century. If one considers editorial interference, my favourite newspaper proprietor in literature is without any question Lord Copper in Evelyn Waugh's marvellous book, "Scoop". As it is Friday, perhaps the House will forgive me if I read a few lines of that 1938 book. Lord Copper was advising William Boot, the naturalist who has suddenly been told by mistake to go off and report on the war in Somalia, how to handle himself: With regard to policy, I expect you already have your own views … Remember that the Patriots are in the right and are going to win. The Beast which was Lord Copper's paper— stands by them foursquare. But they must win quickly. The British public has no interest in a war which drags on indecisively. A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the Patriots' side and a colourful entry into the capital. That is The Beast policy for the war. There is an interesting observation in the page before, when Lord Copper greeted Mr. Boot and said: Come in, Mr. Boot. This is a great pleasure. I have wanted to meet you for a long time. It is not often that the Prime Minister and I agree, but we see eye to eye about your style. Times change. I wonder whether Lord Wilson would ever have agreed with that comment. It is interesting to reflect that in the 1930s people were making the same comments as we have made today.

I am conscious that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) referred to the complaints about not getting a proper mention in the national press. The hon. Gentleman will perhaps remember the sad fate of Mr. Harding, the elderly warden of Barchester hospital, the character at the centre of Anthony Trollope's novel "The Warden" who to his horror suddenly finds himself pilloried in the national newspaper the Jupiter because of the salary that he receives for looking after the elderly in his almshouse. Trespassing on the patience of the House on a Friday, I want to read a paragraph from "The Warden". The offending article in the Jupiter ends with the words: We must express an opinion that nowhere but in the Church of England, and only there among its priests, could such a state of moral indifference be found. Trollope goes on to state: I must for the present leave my readers to imagine the state of Mr. Harding's mind after reading the above article. They say that forty thousand copies of the Jupiter are daily sold, and that each copy is read by five persons at the least. Two hundred thousand readers then would hear this accusation against him; two hundred thousand hearts would swell with indignation at the griping injustice, the bare-faced robbery of the warden of Barchester Hospital! And how was he to answer this? How was he to open his inmost heart to this multitude, to these thousands, the education, the polished, the picked men of his own country, how show them that he was no robber, no avaricious lazy priest scrambling for gold, but a retiring humble-spirited man, who had innocently taken what had innocently been offered to him?

Mr. Leighton

He deserves the right of reply.

Mr. Renton

I will come to the hon. Gentleman's point. Many hon. Members must have experienced or believed that their constituents have experienced the same feelings as the warden of Barchester hospital.

There is nothing particularly new about problems with complaints as outlined in this important debate. At the heart of the matter lies the comments that ordinary people get badly hurt. That theme was recounted by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Hon. Members also asked whether tabloid journalism is getting worse and they asked about the domination of newspapers by a few proprietors.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith referred with great eloquence to comments in the press which he thought would sow racial divisions. With my responsibilities at the Home Office for immigration, I hope that he or his constituents will take up those matters with the Commission for Racial Equality, if such cases occur again and if he believes that articles are sowing racial divisions. The hon. Gentleman's comments and allegations should not go uninvestigated or unanswered. I hope that if he is concerned about those matters in the future he will look into them with the CRE. As far as possible, he will have help from the Home Office in that respect.

Mr. Soley

I have discussed that possibility on at least one occasion. One tends to leave it to the aggrieved person or group and that is a mistake which we all make at times because of our work load. I recognise that the Home Office, particularly with the Public Order Act 1986, was particularly helpful in making the rules more explicit. If we can have the assistance of the Home Office in cases where the press has used a story in a manner which encourages racial hatred, that would be much appreciated by the CRE and by many hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Renton

I am trespassing on the responsibilities of my colleague at the Home Office who deals with community relations. However, I have no doubt that he would be anxious to give the hon. Gentleman the sort of help for which he is asking. We will be pleased to try to follow that up.

I shall turn to some of the wider issues and specific points raised in the debate. The Government are committed to safeguarding the freedom of the press. Those words lie firmly at the heart of the motion moved by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. However, that does not mean that freedom of the press should be unlimited. To assert that is to overlook the rights, liberties and duties with which unlimited press licence would certainly conflict.

I do not believe that after due reflection anyone would argue, in the cause of press freedom, that it is right for a person to be defamed with impunity, for obscene material to be published with impunity, for legal proceedings to be prejudiced with impunity, for an individual's privacy to be invaded without restraint, for all statutory protection for state secrets to be removed or for the public service duty of confidentiality to be abandoned. In all of those cases there is a difficulty as to where a balance should be struck. If there were no arguments about such questions we would know that we were not living in a free society. The fact that press freedom competes at so many points with other freedoms, rights and duties highlights the advantages of not treating the press on a special footing in the eyes of the law. Still less should we contemplate a special role for Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) made a thoughtful and powerful speech about the present economic health of the newspaper industry in this country. I quote: Ancient printing equipment that would fit naturally into a museum of printing is at last being replaced. Traditional manning levels and restrictive practices are on the way out, in most cases by agreement between unions and management. Those are not the words of a newspaper tycoon and still less are they the words of a fellow member of the Government. They are written in aFinancial Timessurvey of 27 July by Mr. Ray Snoddy. He is a widely respected journalist. It was Mr. Snoddy who pointed out that it was the regional newspapers that pioneered many of the new developments such as the use of computer technology and colour and the introduction of direct input. I am pleased to report that the Advertising Association expects a real growth of around 10 per cent, this year in regional press advertising. Mr. Snoddy concluded his survey by saying: Despite the proliferation of electronic media the process of renewal in the British newspaper industry should help to ensure its future is secure. That is an important and satisfactory economic base from which to start. That point was made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, West and for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick).

I doubt whether the process of renewal would have happened without the Government's employment legislation. I say that conscious of the interest of the hon. Member for Newham, North-East (Mr. Leighton) in that subject. I also doubt whether it would have happened without the Government's encouragement for the spirit of enterprise, sound financial management and determination to keep costs down. It is satisfactory—I say this from sharing a past interest in employment matters with the hon. Member for Newham, North-East —that, although disagreement as to which union should represent the entire work force at Wapping still exists, there seems to be progress towards acknowledgement of the fact that there has to be a single bargaining unit.

Mr. Leighton

Does the Minister recall that the article from theFinancial Times that he quoted said that the new technology had been introduced by co-operation with the unions? The only example of which I am aware in which new technology was introduced by confrontation and not agreement is at Wapping and it has caused trouble ever since. The workers at Wapping are unhappy with the present arrangements and want to make changes.

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman and I have crossed swords—in a thoroughly pleasant manner—in past Employment Bill Standing Committees. I am not as close to that Department as I used to be, but my impression from recent newspaper reports is that there has been progress, although the Wapping strike meant to the newspaper industry what the miners' strike of three years ago meant to the coal industry. The current progress is important to a new union deal that will accept a single bargaining unit. Surely the hon. Gentleman agrees that, despite the bitterness of the past, that can only represent progress.

Hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, have spoken about the concentration of ownership. It is in the nature of things that they may have much more to say about closures and mergers than about the rejuvenation of the industry, and the factors that have made it possible. However, I believe that the latter is by far the most significant development. Even taking account of the recent closures ofSunday Todayand Newson Sunday—I shall not repeat all the detailed statistics quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West—it should be stressed that the number of companies with a national newspaper interest has risen from eight in 1981 to 10 today.

Many of us have been particularly encouraged by the success of The Independent—the first quality national paper to be launched in this country for over 130 years—in carving out a niche at the top end of the market, and winning journalistic awards. I say that as one who is not unfamiliar both with being taken to task by correspondents of The Independent—over, for example, the content of our Immigration Bill—and with frankly disagreeing with the paper, as I did earlier this week over its reporting of the study that the Home Office is undertaking of DNA. The Independent is also a prime example of the growing trend towards the use of contract printing. It is now much easier to set up a newspaper without the huge investment required for printing equipment.

Let me deal next with the concentration of ownership. The views on the transfer of Today to News International last May, and on Mr. Murdoch's acquisition of 14.7 per cent, of Pearson plc, the publisher of the Financial Times, have already been well ventilated. I shall certainly bring the points that have been made today to the attention of my right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I repeat, however, that the decision by my right hon. and noble Friend to consent to the Today transfer on grounds of financial urgency, without an inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, saved the paper, along with some 500 jobs.

It is true that, as a result, News International increased its market share for popular dailies, but it did so by only 2.5 per cent. As for the Financial Times, I can assure the House that, while the newspaper remains profitable and continues to enjoy a paid-for circulation of over 25,000—both those factors, I am glad to say, seem very likely to continue—any proposal to acquire the newspaper by News International, or any other proprietor with substantial newspaper interests, would automatically have to be referred to the MMC for an inquiry.

In line with the efforts being made to speed up decisions on merger proposals that are referred to the MMC, my right hon. and noble Friend announced on 8 October that the MMC has already said that it will complete future inquiries in the general run of newspaper mergers within two months, rather than the three allowed by law. That should make it more difficult for parties to contend that, in cases in which the target newspaper is in financial difficulties, an MMC inquiry is ruled out. I understand that other improvements in procedures are being considered.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

Obviously, that point has been made in the House a number of times. But does the Minister not accept that it still does not add up to a substantial enough assurance? First, the MMC's record of turning down takeovers of national newspapers is nonexistent; secondly, I believe that the Secretary of State still has the final say. Why can he not make it clear in advance that such a takeover would not be acceptable?

Mr. Renton

That point was covered two or three days ago in the House by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It is impossible for the Secretary of State to say in advance, in a hypothetical situation, what he will do. My right hon. and learned Friend made it absolutely clear that no case had yet been put to him and that he could not rule on a hypothesis. The wording that he used about the Act was carefully considered, and I have no doubt that he meant it.

In line, therefore, with the changes that I have just mentioned, my right hon. and noble Friend is very conscious of press freedom when considering changes in newspaper ownership, and he will continue to safeguard it. In this connection, I support what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley. In our view, the legislation should not be used to facilitate meddlesome Government intervention in the affairs of newspapers. That could threaten the free circulation of news and opinion. To many of us, one of the great virtues of this country's heritage of press freedom is precisely that the Government's role is so limited. I say that even though this limited Government role does not make life easy for a Minister standing at the Dispatch Box whose primary responsibilities are for immigration and broadcasting policy.

There is still an assumption in some quarters that the Government are responsible for, or must pass judgment upon, each and every activity that takes place within these shores. I totally reject such an assumption. Our framework of press freedom provides as clear an illustration as anyone could wish of the fact that the British people have never wanted to live in either a nanny or a Big Brother state. We should always remember that before reaching too hastily for the latest legislative nostrum about the newspapers of the day for which the politicians do not care.

Before I turn to the latest legislative nostrum, perhaps I should say a few words about the Press Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken)—who, like my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), very much regrets that he cannot be here for the wind-up because of a constituency engagement—raised doubts about the Press Council and its efficacy. So did the hon. Member for Gordon in his powerful speech. I remind the House that it was on the recommendation of the first Royal Commission that a General Council of the press was established to provide a framework of self-regulation for the press. The council has 18 professional and 18 lay members under an independent chairman.

Much has been said in the debate about the Press Council being toothless. Other unkind epithets have been used. However, during the last 10 years the Press Council's case load has trebled and it has sharpened up its procedures. For instance, since 1978 it has had an official conciliator who can employ informal procedures to reach agreement between the parties after a complaint. Since 1984 it has operated what is described as a fast track correction procedure, a procedure that expects editors to correct significiant inaccuracies within six days. The Press Council aims to rule on any complaint of such inaccuracies within a fortnight.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith referred to codes of ethics for journalists. The National Union of Journalists has a code of professional conduct, as does the Institute of Journalists, but the Press Council's adjudications constitute an important set of principles for the press. In 1985 it published a digest of these principles in convenient book form.

As to the complaint that the Press Council lacks teeth, some journalists say to me that they feel that it is breathing down their necks. The Press Council's shaming condemnation of such matters as the invasion of The privacy of the royal family, to which the hon. Member for Hammersmith alluded in his speech, have attracted wide and deeply felt public support. Editors have to be responsive to public opinion. We should all note the fact that the circulation war rivals of an offending paper are not reluctant to emphasise a Press Council condemnation of another paper.

Mr. Soley

It is not just the toothlessness of the Press Council that troubles us. The 1977 Royal Commission report put its finger on the problem when it said that the Press Council seems to exist to protect the press from the public, rather than the other way round. The Royal Commission touched on a raw nerve for the Press Council, but perhaps it was a real one. I wonder why the Press Council could not do anything about the stories that I cited in relation to the university of London research. If only half of that research is accurate, it must cause the Press Council deep concern. Does the Minister agree that the Press Council should give an annual report on the standards of journalism, so that we can have a more informed debate on the matter—perhaps on an annual basis?

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman's last proposal is not unattractive and I hope that the members of the Press Council will take careful note of the comments that have been made in the debate.

My last point relates to legislation—the point on which we come to differ with Opposition Members. I said earlier that our framework of press freedom was the antithesis of the Big Brother state. We need to examine carefully Opposition Members' proposals on the form that legislation might take. The hon. Member for Hammersmith and others referred to the possibility of a formal statutory right of reply. That idea was very well ventilated in the House in 1983 in relation to Frank Allaun's Bill. The general judgment at that time was that, while the idea was attractive in principle, it was impracticable. I note that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) described the Bill in an article in Punch as generally impracticable and wholly desirable, probably unworkable and certainly essential". The right hon. Gentleman revels in such paradox. I can only marvel at this fascinating glimpse of the Labour party's policy-making process. If the same rigorously consistent thought processes played a part in Labour's manifesto this summer, I understand why the Labour party got into such a muddle about its defence policy and nuclear disarmament. But that is a debate for another day.

The idea of having a right of reply is, in a sense, attractive to us all. Let me cite a personal example. When I became Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office just over two years ago, I found to my surprise in the report of my appointment in The Times the following day the announcement that I had been Great Uncle Bulgaria in the Wombles pop group. I really do not know where The Times got that information, although admittedly some of my friends said that it was much the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me. As everyone in the House knows, the Wombles were a particularly nice pop group. I rang up The Times the following day and complained that the story was not true. There had been two fairly flattering column inches about my appointment. However, the next day, sunk somewhere at the botton of page four or five appeared a tiny two-line statement to the effect that any reference to Mr. Renton's previous career in the music industry had been incorrect. That is all that The Times ever said.

Mr. Corbett

The Minister reminds me of something that the late Lord Shinwell said when chastising journalists. He said that when they go to check the cuttings they believe that they are checking the facts.

Mr. Renton

There is something of Mark Twain in that remark.

The consequence of this interesting mistake by The Times was more evident in Hong Kong than anywhere else. As Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office one of my responsibilities was for Hong Kong. As far as Hong Kong was concerned, I was Minister for Hong Kong. I was sent a copy of the South China Morning Post, the leading English daily in Hong Kong, in which the banner headline was, in effect, "New Minister for Hong Kong Ex-Pop Star". Because of the minuscule correction in The Times, so far as I know the South China Morning Post never contradicted the statement that I was an ex-pop star and Hong Kong still believes that I was Great Uncle Bulgaria.

On a more serious note, in many ways it would have been pleasant for me if I could have insisted on the right of reply, with an equal number of column inches pointing out that damage had been done to my career by this false attribution. If I had been able to do that, I think that the end result for me, and other Members of Parliament, would be a very much more boring national press. If we all had the right of reply, either the newspapers would write uncontentious news, for fear that we would all occupy their columns the following day, or our replies would occupy their columns, which would read like agony letters.

Mr. Leighton

We are not the only ones who need protection.

Mr. Renton

I take the hon. Gentleman's point. It is not just us. We are the ones who least need protecting.

I remind the House of Mr. Pooter's correspondence with his local newspaper in "The Diary of a Nobody" and his great irritation at the fact that the local newspaper had not reported that he had been to the Lord Mayor's ball. I do not believe that we want our press to have to produce that type of editorial matter. I recognise the sincerely held views expressed in favour of introducing a legal right of reply on grounds of public interest and in defence of the individual. I shall look forward to seeing the contents of the Unfair Reporting and Right of Reply Bill, to be introduced by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). Motivations are not always totally pure. A memorandum published by the Labour party's national executive committee in 1982 in advocating the introduction of a right to reply Bill said that the measure would draw some of the claws of the press magnates. The warning is there—there are those who need such measures as the first step towards reducing the freedom of the press as we know it.

If there is not to be a right of reply, what legislation does the Labour party have in mind? The hon. Member for Hammersmith talked about a media enterprise board. It is in precisely this respect that I profoundly disagree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestions. He spoke about the media enterprise board providing finance, buying machinery and organising distribution. But what would it distribute? That point was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley. There is no difficulty in distributing what people want to read—what is easily saleable and what they want to have on their doorsteps. The difficulty is in distributing what they do not want and what is forced down their throats. I fear that this is precisely the sort of exercise in which such a media enterprise board would become involved. I should be interested if the hon. Member for Hammersmith will tell us whether he believes that the Government should set up a launch fund to assist new publications in order to encourage the diversity necessary in a healthy democracy"— the pledge in the Labour manifesto last June. Since then, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley said, we have seen local authorities using their pension funds and trade unions and even a Socialist estate agent investing in the launch funds for the ill-fated News on Sunday It gives me no satisfaction to hear of the demise of any newspaper, but that newspaper's experiences suggest that what would be involved is not launch aid but a perpetual state lifeboat. What would this newspaper say? Where would be the diversity so necessary to a healthy democracy of which the Labour manifesto spoke?

Mr. Soley

May I remind the Minister that the Dutch Printing Corporation and its Scandinavian counterparts manage successfully? If he examines these organisations he will gain an idea of what we have in mind. There are issues more important than the question of who will read a newspaper. One course is to go down market to sex, violence and royal family stories to encourage a sufficient readership to attract advertising. The alternative is to go up market, as The Independent has done successfully. There is missing an element of the press that crosses a variety of boundaries and offers a quality of journalism that has gone missing since the demise of newspapers such as the the News Chronicle and the Daily Herald, which had a readership of 9 million. Despite that readership, these newspapers could not survive. Their demise was unconnected with readership levels.

Mr. Renton

I do not remember the reason why the News Chronicle did not survive. It seems, however, that the hon. Gentleman is advancing a thoroughly uneconomic argument. Newspapers survive because they have a readership, and that is the lesson that The Independent has taught us. Shares in that newspaper are owned by 35 of our leading financial institutions, and no one is allowed to have a shareholding of more than 10 per cent. I think that the maximum holding currently is 8 per cent. The Independent is devoted to giving serious, high-quality independent news. I am glad to say that it is surviving.

Perhaps I should bring my remarks to a conclusion now because I am aware that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate.

Mr. Soley

As I have said, the combined sales of the News Chronicle, Reynolds News and the Daily Herald was 9 million, which means that these titles went bust for reasons unconnected with sales.

Mr. Renton

With respect, I suspect that that cannot be right. The demise of these newspapers was due either to excessively expensive working practices or because people's tastes moved away from them. It is clear from the success of the tabloids nowadays that people's tastes change.

Mr. Leighton .


Mr. Renton

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I shall not give way to him. I wish to bring my remarks to a conclusion so that I can let others speak and allow the hon. Member for Hammersmith to have his final say.

The encouragement of diversity is at the heart of the proposal that lies within the motion, but would the hon. Member for Hammersmith be rushing to the Adam Smith Institute or the Freedom Association offering them funds for the propagation of their views, or would he be interested only in reviving Labour Weekly at the taxpayers' expense? Judging by what the staff said when the Leader of the Opposition and his fellow revisionists shut down Labour Weekly, that might not be such a good idea. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to explain when he replies what he considers to be the diverse views that the public are being denied by the wicked market which the Labour party alone, which is noted for its tolerance and broadmindedness, can bring them. It is not the fault of the market that the Socialist Worker fails to match the circulation of the Daily Express. Could it perhaps be the fault of the product itself?

We do not think that the way to a free, better and more diverse press lies in more legislation and Government interference. In the suggested approach there is a clear contradiction in terms. It leads to Orwellian thoughts of readers being made to readLabour Weeklybecause it is good for them, rather like the eating of bran and brown bread.

Let the self-regulators look to their laurels, but I believe that the answer to some of the problems that have been mentioned is self-regulation. Let the self-regulators remember Mark Twain's words: We write frankly and freely and then we modify before we print". The message of this debate for me is that more modification, particularly for individuals who cannot speak for themselves, would be welcome.

1.48 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

I echo the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on making this debate possible. We spend far too little time on considering these matters.

I am sure that it will be agreed on both sides of the House that press freedom is not an extra option in a parliamentary democracy; it is an essential ingredient of that democracy and, indeed, a litmus test of whether it exists. I can think of no hon. Member who would vote against the notion of our general support for press freedom—that is, unless it is put to the test. The most recent example of that was mentioned by my hon. Friend and others, when Mr. Murdoch's News International gobbled up Today. When that happened, it found a welcome from all but a handful of Conservative Members. Our complaint was that it was done in such a hurry that it denied the Monopolies and Mergers Commission the chance to examine the matter. I do not accept for a second that it is simply a matter of a newspaper's circulation and market share. Of course, that is one of the considerations, but other things come into it. That illustrates the difference between the two sides of the House on the issue.

Our complaint is not against individual proprietors; it is the fact that the ownership of newspapers by a person such as Mr. Murdoch sends a message to and sets the climate for staff working on those newspapers. Even if they do not get detailed instructions from Mr. Murdoch, they soon learn and understand that, if they want material published in the newspapers that he owns, it must be written in a certain way and a certain style or else it will not see the light of day.

That is why we got so angry about the takeover of Today. It took no account of the fact that Mr. Murdoch, now an American citizen, rules a media empire that spans three continents and here takes in The Times, The Sunday Times, News of the World and a publication registered at the Post Office as a newspaper and known as The Sun. That is without detailing Mr. Murdoch's interest in television, broadcasting, radio stations and so on. Lately we have heard about his aspirations about the Financial Times.

I welcome what the Minister said about the automatic referral of any takeover bid for the Financial Times by Mr. Murdoch or anyone else to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission; but the Minister did not say very much at all. It is automatic under the legislation that the MMC is required to examine that, but on grounds of urgency, as in the case of Today, it could be said that any bid for the Financial Times should go ahead. As demonstrated in the case of Today, that is likely to happen.

What is missing in the legislation is not the power for politicians to interfere, but the power to protect freedoms that are very much at risk. The Financial Times demonstrates that exactly. Its strength, reputation and integrity do not rest in its circulation. Its circulation is tiny and quite narrow. It is the reputation, the quality that that paper has established, which makes it a success in the market place.

I should like to make it clear on behalf of the Opposition that we are not in the business of picking saints and sinners among the owners of the newspapers or other media outlets. We say that growing monopoly ownership of the press alongside growing domination of television and broadcasting worldwide is unacceiptable and a threat to our democracy. It is a democracy that belongs to us all, every citizen, not just those with the deepest pockets and purses who can buy it. That seemed to be the nub of the argument of the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw), which terrifies the Opposition.

I do not mind how the media moguls are perceived, whether they are seen as saints or sinners. We say that a properly free press and media are too essential a part of our democracy to be entrusted to a few pairs of hands with the pound notes to make that ownership possible.

This is the difference. We are not talking about toothpaste, baked beans or even British Gas or British Telecom. We are concerned about publications and programmes that can and do have a powerful influence on the minds and attitudes of people who are in the process of helping to make our democracy work; yet the simple truth of press freedom is this. Press freedom rests on nothing more substantial than whether a newspaper makes a profit—not even whether it has sufficient readers. My hon. Friends are right about the News Chronicle. There was not a problem with readership. There were advertising problems, but, if I remember correctly, those running the News Chronicle worked out that they would make a bigger, quicker buck out of closing the paper and selling the presses to the Daily Mail. That cash register attitude towards the press is reflected in the Government's attitude towards broadcasting, which is part of the argument about freedom of the press because an increasing number of people rely heavily on television and radio for news and information about current affairs.

The Government should be thoroughly ashamed of their attitude to the BBC. The former Tory party chairman, the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), went on Independent Television News to announce a vendetta against the BBC with allegations of bias about Kate Adie's reporting of the United States surprise attack on Libya. Whatever the merits of that attack—and they were few—those remarks were an insult not just to the experience and integrity of Kate Adie. More dangerously, in the context of setting a climate, they signalled to those responsible for making and transmitting programmes, especially news and current affairs programmes, that the Government had declared war on the BBC. After all, the allegations were made by a senior Cabinet Minister, not some whipper-snapper from the Back Benches.

I make it clear that we shall use any influence that we have to support and encourage people at the BBC to resist and repel such Government interference. We seek no favours from the BBC. We merely expect it to exert and proclaim once again the editorial integrity and balance on which its well-deserved, much copied and admired reputation around the world is based. That is no mean achievement. The standards established by the BBC set the standards for the handling of news and current affairs by independent television when it was set up. If it is true that ITN news bulletins are to become tabloids of the air, such a down-market dive will do nothing to enhance press freedom and to help our democracy to function.

It does our cause in relation to the BBC no good, however, if the chairman of the corporation is seen to be pandering to the whims of the Government. The House will recall the argument about the appointment of Mr. Howell James—a known member of the Prime Minister's kitchen Cabinet during the general election— as the BBC's director of corporate affairs. When I complained to the chairman, Mr. Marmaduke Hussey asserted that the appointment was made only on merit. If that is what he says, I accept it. Astonishingly, however, the chairman then told me in relation to Mr. James: I am unaware that he has a 'special relationship' with the Prime Minister. The chairman of the BBC must have been the only person within these shores to be unaware of that. I certainly find his denial very hard to swallow.

The danger of that appointment, which has been illustrated by other appointments, is that it gives the impression that known public support for the Conservative party is the main qualification for appointment to the BBC. That impression is harmful to the BBC and does nothing to enhance the corporation's integrity or editorial independence.

Mr. Renton

The hon. Gentleman is making a ridiculous allegation which would be entirely regretted, resented and disapproved by top management at the BBC and by the board. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the vice-chairman of the governors is none other than a former Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, now in another place. I am very pleased that the vice-chairmanship is held by that person because it is proof of the impartiality and non-party-political nature of the governors and top management of the BBC. For the sake of the BBC, the hon. Gentleman should withdraw his allegations.

Mr. Corbett

The right hon. Member for Chingford will note that the Minister did not spring to his defence. I have exchanged correspondence with the chairman of the BBC about my allegations. Whether or not what I am saying is true, an impression is being given that is damaging to the integrity of the BBC.

I want to illustrate the Government's real attitude to freedom of the press. On Monday, in this city—the nation's capital—it was asserted on behalf of the Government that newspapers have no role in exposing scandals in the Security Service. Instead, it was argued on the Government's behalf, newspapers should quietly creep away, tap a Government Minister on the shoulder and have a word in his or her ear. If that is not a licence to print and publish only at the Government's behest and with their consent, I do not know what is. That is the road to a censored, controlled press and media. "Tell us first", say the Government, "and we will tell you if it is all right to tell others".

I turn to another example of what the Government grandly describe as a free press. This is difficult, because it concerns The Star newspaper. It was a newspaper on what we shall call the underbelly of the tabloid pile. Lord Stevens, ennobled by the Prime Minister, found himself in the role of Lord Porn in a deal that he did with something that was laughably called Sunday Sport—it has the cheek to maintain a Lobby correspondent on these premises—to salvage The Star. It was boobs and bonking on every page, including the wicked exploitation of a 15-year-old girl with large breasts; and, I am told, topless pictures were taken of her before her sixteenth birthday in breach of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, although they were not published. When, on behalf of journalists working at The Star's London office at that time, Mr. David Buchan reported their views that The Star, under the editorship of Michael Gabbert, was a disgrace, he was fired. He did no more than report the views of his chapel. That dispute has now been resolved, although it has cost Mr. Buchan his job. So, in the search for profit, owners, including those with peerages, are prepared to pander to the lowest common denominator.

We believe that lowering standards of taste and decency does nothing to enhance entertainment or understanding. I hope that The Star will now recover, as Mr. Galbert has gone back to his sewer now. As an illustration of the cynical attitude of some sections of the press, I want to describe what happens on the back-bench of The Sun when a so-called "true story alert" is sometimes called. Sitting on top of a VDU there is a squeaky rubber likeness of the Prime Minister, exactly like the one I am holding up, which is usually used by dogs to chew or by parents to frighten their children. It is held aloft and squeaked—I shall not do it in the Chamber, although this one is capable of it—when the senior executive on duty on the bench at the time comes across a story which, in his opinion, contains some true facts. That is such a rarity that not much squeaking goes on on the back-bench of The Sun.

Such activities remind me of a bit of doggerel by Humbert Wolfe which describes the attitude of many of those on The Sun newspaper: You cannot hope To bribe or twist, Thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what The man will do Unbribed, there's No occasion to. The Government are not indifferent to press freedom; quite the reverse. They have allowed their patronage and power to be used to ensure that even information officers in the Civil Service have been turned into an arm of Government. A lively, growing democracy needs and demands more sources of information on which to make decisions. That is one of the hallmarks of a genuine democracy; but the duty of the Government to provide information upon which citizens can make choices and reach decisions has been grossly interfered with, largely through the role of the information department at 10 Downing street. That office is critically responsible for offering stories, views and opinions to most of the media of the press and of broadcasting. The person who rules that office has been described by the Mail on Sunday as the real deputy Prime Minister. He was described as such by the impeccably Tory Mail on Sunday. In spite of that, I believe it is an extremely good newspaper. That high office, filled by Mr. Bernard Ingham, helps to set the political agenda and influence what journalists write. In that sense, if that office did not do that there would be no point in having it.

The Mail on Sunday says that Mr. Ingham is the person charged with, paid for and employed to sell this Government. There were distant times when that office was held by people who had a more open brief and who let the press know what the Government were up to and did not try to use that office to sell the Government's wares.

It must be of concern to us when two senior Government information officers leave the Government service—they had been working closely with Bernard Ingham during their careers—to go directly to work for the Tory party. Christine Wall left to work at the Tory party headquarters in Smith square and Alex Pagett left to work in the Scottish Office to attempt the impossible job of trying to recover Tory fortunes in Scotland. I do not complain of their professional decision to move. What I am complaining about is the abuse of position practised by Mr. Ingham, with the support of the Prime Minister, in manipulating what should be an open and honourable role for information officers in Whitehall.

Such appointments speak volumes about the Government's attempts to manipulate the news for narrow, party interests. That contrasts with the scene when Minister stand at the Dispatch Box and make speeches about introducing legislation preventing elected local councils from publishing straightforward, factual material to enable ratepayers to know what is going on and why. Every day of the week people such as Bernard Ingham act on behalf of the Government for no more than pure, petty, narrow, party-political reasons.

Yes, the Opposition are more interventionist. We want a Government who will intervene on the side of democracy, a Government who will act to protect and extend the freedom and open expression of diverse voices and opinions in our press and media for all groups of citizens, especially those largely unheard in our ethnic community.

There must be proper control of the spread of monopoly ownership. We should do what other nations do to prevent foreign ownership of the press and the broadcasting media. We must encourage and enable more voices to be heard. If it is right to require ITV stations to support Channel 4 by a levy on their advertising revenue, that principle could be equally applied to the printed media to assist the development of more papers with, I hope, more points of view reflected.

Mr. Renton

I do not question the passion with which the hon. Member is now speaking, but can he tell us if it was right for a council, such as Southwark borough council, to invest £250,000 of the staff pension fund in the Left-wing newspaper News on Sunday, which has now gone bust? Did that council consult the future pensioners? Does the hon. Gentleman think that that was a proper use of that fund?

Mr. Corbett

I am not quite sure what Conservative criticisms and objections on the News on Sunday are about. Let us find out. The Minister has said that their objections are based on the fact that that newspaper has gone bust. However, I cannot imagine anyone in a local council or in a commercial business knowingly and recklessly putting money into something which he or she knew was going bust.

Mr. David Shaw

That is what the council did.

Mr. Corbett

If that is the objection, I understand it, but I suspect that it is not.

There are plenty of councils—Birmingham city council is one of them—that invest in commercial enterprises and make money on behalf of the cities and ratepayers. Is there an objection to that? Are the Conservatives' objections founded on the fact that a loss was made?

The decision regarding investment in News on Sunday properly belonged to elected members of the council. The judgment was theirs right or wrong. They are accountable directly to the electorate for that decision.

Mr. Riddick

The stockbrokers, Fielding Newson Smith and Co., advised Brent council that it should not invest in that Sunday newspaper. Therefore, the council had sound commercial advice that the newspaper would not be a commercial and viable enterprise.

Mr. Corbett

What the hon. Gentleman has just said is news to me. However, I am prepared to accept his point because it would be impertinent of me to speak on behalf of locally elected councils that made their own decisions in a democratic way. That is why Labour Members are such passionate believers in elected local government, unlike Conservative Members. Some decisions will please us and some will not. That is just tough luck.

Mr. Soley

Would it not be easier to accept the Government's complaints, if such they are, if they had not spent millions of taxpayers' money on purchasing back BP shares at less than the price at which they were being sold on the market and, prior to that, on the same cost basis, selling things that were cheaper than they were on the market? If they did that for non-market reasons, clearly it was not for good investment, so what complaint do they have?

Mr. Corbett

My hon. Friend is quite right. Conservative Members speak with forked tongues about this. My hon. Friend said at the time of the BP issue that it was the only privatisation flotation with renationalisation built into it. Conservative Members say that they are concerned about the proper use of taxpayers' money, but literally millions of pounds were misused by the Government both in advertising those flotations and in massive handouts to those in the City who helped them to achieve them.

It is clear that we shall not agree. However, perhaps we can agree that—this is a truism—new technology, in the printing media and in the broadcasting media, has made possible some exciting developments, among them The Independent, and I echo the tributes that have been paid to that newspaper. New technology will do the same sort of thing in broadcasting. If properly used, the entry costs for setting up new publications and community radio stations are likely to fall dramatically. That gives us the opportunity, with the right kind of encouragement, to have many more voices heard and views reflected of those who now find it difficult, if not impossible, to get time on the air waves or their views in print.

It is my hope that all hon. Members and those who read the debate will agree with the principle that freedom in our printed press and in our broadcasting media is too important to be left solely to the whims of market forces. That is what the argument is about. We want no Government interference of any complexity, but we believe that there is a proper role for Government to assist and enable the blossoming and flourishing of views and voices in the media.

2.13 pm
Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) on introducing the debate. Quite clearly the matter deserves the consideration of the House at regular intervals. He was right to bring it forward. I have listened with great care to remarks made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I first want to take up some points made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who told us about the Today newspaper and his concern that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission so quickly agreed to its takeover.

The hon. Member for Erdington also mentioned the fact that Mr. Rupert Murdoch's activities in the press were causing some concern. The hon. Gentleman believed that Mr. Murdoch was giving a good deal of editorial direction to his editors to follow a Conservative line. At the same time, the hon. Gentleman must not forget that many Conservative Members are far from happy about the harassment of the royal family which appears in a number of Mr. Murdoch's newspapers. I trust that the hon. Member for Erdington would not suggest that such coverage reflects the views of Conservative Members. My colleagues and I deprecate that.

It is essential that newspapers make a profit, whether they are free newspapers, sold on the street corner or in newsagents. I cannot accept the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Erdington that the alternative is state control and state funding.

Mr. Corbett


Mr. Thorne

I am afraid that that was the impression that the hon. Gentleman gave. There is such a facility in other countries, but as far as I am aware it occurs in countries that have complete control over the press. I am sure that the hon. Member for Erdington would not want that introduced in this country.

It is essential that newspapers are sold and profits made. Only by making profits can jobs be provided and preserved and returns given to the investors. Towards the end of his speech the hon. Member for Erdington referred to the unwilling investment by pensioners or pension fund beneficiaries in Southwark and elsewhere in the newspaper which has just gone under. We all deplore that, but clearly it was not founded on very sure foundations. The failure of that paper is entirely different from the guaranteeing or underwriting of the BP share issue. BP shareholders were guaranteed that, by investing in the company, they would not lose vast sums of money. That must have been to the benefit of the taxpayer as it encouraged many people to take up the opportunity to purchase shares. The investment of pensioners' funds is an entirely different matter. Clearly, we should not countenance that.

I sincerely hope that the district auditor will examine that case to see whether the councillors who spent the funds should be surcharged. I hope that the hon. Member for Erdington will agree that they should be surcharged if they were behaving irresponsibly with the pensioners' funds in those local authorities. The pensioners clearly had little or no opportunity to control their own funds. Therefore, it was wrong for a decision to be taken on their behalf. The money was wasted.

People tend to have views about what happens in the broadcasting media and see editorial freedom as an important aspect. The independent sector has to produce profits to exist and it does not depend upon national legislation or a requirement for everybody to pay licence fees for it to continue to exist. In those circumstances, quite rightly, the general public has a right to expect a high standard of editorial production.

It is not only Conservative Members who have been objecting about the behaviour of the BBC in recent years. I well remember the noble Lord Wilson complaining about it and saying that in his view a much more balanced news programme was provided by the independent network. Therefore, we are not alone in criticising the attitude and behaviour of the BBC. That is important and we should remember it. The early 1960s gave rise to a new attitude in the BBC and many of the new entrants to the organisation had a different interpretation of what the political content should be. Many people believe that the emergence of those entrants into senior positions now is a reason for concern.

Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

I agree with the concern expressed by my hon. Friend. However, one has to be wary about Government intervention in order to correct something which, at the moment, seems to be an imbalance but, in the perspective of history, may not be so.

Mr. Thorne

That is certainly the case. It is acknowledged by many people in the media that complaints from both sides more or less balance the books. If they do not receive a fairly even number of complaints from both sides, they do not feel that they are doing their job effectively and satisfactorily. I accept that and it is the way in which things are likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The question of editorial freedom and censorship is a sensitive one. We have to watch the situation carefully. On occasion the Press Council has given the impression that it exists more for the benefit of the press than the general public. It is not alone in that. There are many organisations which appear to be giving cover to the general public but which are funded by the industry that they are supposed to be monitoring. We have to be cautious about that but we do not have to over-react. Inevitably we rely upon a large measure of self-restraint and if we do not have that in the newspaper industry, clearly we do not have a free and fair press.

The right of reply is an important element. My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned a particular experience of his. I hope that he is now claiming royalties on each appearance of Great Uncle Bulgaria because I am sure he ought to be entitled to some benefit from that. That would be fair and reasonable.

We do not want legislation to bring a Big Brother state into the equation. The worst thing we could possibly do would be to try to set up a sort of Pravda in this country. That is entirely unacceptable to the British way of life.

What happened to the News on Sunday was very unfortunate, but it was all part of the freedom to invest and to put a view forward. If the publisher of a newspaper does not catch the mood of the market, he cannot possibly expect to publish profitably and receive the benefit of his investment. If the Opposition parties believe that they have that opportunity, they should back their judgment and make such an investment. If they have not the ability to do that, they must let the free market get on with it, and try to ensure that they put the same pressure that Conservative Members would wish to apply if we felt that the matter was not being dealt with fairly and equitably.

I would welcome the opportunity for both sides of the House to debate this subject regularly.

2.25 pm
Mr. Soley

I must tell the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mr. Thorne) that the Conservative party has the best Pravda in the Western world. It is called the Daily Mail. Pravda is the party paper; Izvestia is the state paper. Significantly, the Labour party has never been very successful at running a party paper. The Conservatives have been enormously successful at it.

No Opposition Member has ever said, or would ever say, that there should be central control of the press. We are saying that to leave it to the market puts minority groups and opinions at risk, because the market cannot be relied upon.

A media enterprise board no more means interference by the Government than does the existence of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. The Minister is plainly an avid reader. May I ask him, as one of his next readership courses, to read Curran's book on power without responsibility?

Mr. Renton

I have it.

Mr. Soley

If the Minister has the book, he can look it up when he gets home. It explains why middle-market newspapers such as the News Chronicle—not, of course, a Labour paper—went to the wall. It had nothing to do with lack of readership. As I said in my earlier intervention, readership of the three papers I mentioned was about 9 million. They went to the wall because of the problem of advertising revenue.

Once a paper chooses to go down market—a Conservative Member said that it was impossible to be undercut by going down market and featuring items on sex and violence—and other papers are going for the quality end of the market, the A and B social groupings so loved by the high-income press which must advertise to please them, the middle range, whether Labour, Tory or Liberal, has had it. The middle range will be squeezed out, and that is exactly what happened.

When that happens, it means an acceleration of the monopolistic tendency. News International, Mr. Maxwell and some of the others are heading towards a total monopoly. It is not a monopoly yet; it is an oligopoly. But we are already losing factors vital to democracy —variety, and the ability to communicate freely.

As new technology takes us into new spheres, and as News International and similar organisations buy into them, a world communications network is developing which is controlled by a handful of individuals. I should have thought that the hon. Member for Ilford, South and his hon. Friends who fear centralised control would fear that. It need not be a Government who are in control; a dozen or so individuals can, through their control of a large organisation, control the international communications network. If that happens, we are in terrible trouble.

In my opening remarks, I mentioned a number of possible ways of reversing the trend towards monopoly. Yesterday, a judge intervened to allow The Guardian to publish, for the first time, what was said in court about "Spycatcher". There is some movement in the right direction. More than anything else, I desperately hope that in some small way this debate has opened up the question of the freedom of the press in this country and the problems that it faces. If we are at one in wanting a free press, however we define it, we have a duty to look at all the issues that have been discussed today and to do so in a way that will be helpful and constructive for the press and the media generally but that at the same time recognises that there is a genuine problem. At first,the——

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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