HC Deb 21 April 1989 vol 151 cc600-26

`This Act shall come into force on such date as the Lord Chancellor shall by statutory instrument provide.'—[Mr. Gow.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Gow

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take the following amendments: No. 77, in clause 2, page 2, line 2, after 'appointed', insert— '(a) on the establishment of the Commission'. No. 96, in page 2, line 2, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert 'Lord Chancellor'.

No. 76, in page 2, line 2, after 'State', insert— ', and (b) in subsequent years by the Secretary of State and the Commission in equal numbers.'. No. 84, in the schedule, page 4, line 17, leave out 'by the Secretary of State'. No. 88, in page 4, line 23, leave out 'by the Secretary of State'.

Mr. Gow

Tomorrow we shall celebrate the anniversary of the birth of his late Majesty the Emperor of Japan. Hon. Members may wonder about the relevance of that anniversary to the debate. It is a question which has occurred to my hon. Friend the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household, who is characteristically seated in his place. We noted that anniversary on an earlier occasion. Is it a matter of fact or a matter of opinion? The Bill is concerned with fact or opinion.

The new clause mentions the Lord Chancellor. It has been tabled for two reasons: first, to show my right hon. and hon. Friends' confidence in the Lord Chancellor—a confidence which, apparently, is not shared by all of Her Majesty's judges—and, secondly, to bring sense to the Bill. It is difficult to bring sense to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister, as diligent as ever in the performance of his duties, is still present. [Interruption.] The Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household laughs. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) laughed. He has now ceased to laugh. He recognises the truth of that remark.

As I said, we need to bring some sense to the Bill. It is difficult to bring sense to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Minister read out to the House an article by Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper who, as the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household knows, is one of Her Majesty's counsel. He has been appointed chairman of the Press Council. No better appointment to that important office has ever been made. I praise Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. He is a lawyer of outstanding quality, and he has a sense of honour. I was surprised when some Opposition Members gave the impression that they had no confidence in Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. [Interruption.] That was the impression.

Mr. Fisher

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gow

A Wykehamist always gives way to an Etonian.

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, wherever he was educated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has had to leave the Chamber. I make it clear on his behalf that, far from casting any aspersions on Mr. Blom-Cooper, my hon. Friend has gone out of his way, on Second Reading, in Committee and today, to pay tribute to him and to the reform of the Press Council that he is seeking. The fact that my hon. Friend considers that that work is likely to be doomed, because the Press Council is organised by those who control and own the press, is another matter. My hon. Friend's personal opinions of Mr. Blom-Cooper are clearly on record. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that and accept that no Opposition Member has cast any aspersions on Mr. Blom-Cooper.

Mr. Gow

I made the fairly innocent and, I thought, accurate remark that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. and hon. Friends gained the impression that Opposition Members—other than the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie—do not think very highly of Mr. Blom-Cooper. My right hon. and hon. Friends are not shaking their heads and saying, "You have gone off your head, Gow." Instead of shaking their heads, they are nodding. The heads that are nodding do not belong to me but are those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. They are of age, and they can give their own indications.

I see on the Treasury Bench three Ministers—as will the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) if he looks straight ahead. Whips are certainly Ministers—that is beyond dispute. Each of those three Ministers, chosen by the Prime Minister herself, agrees that the impression given by Opposition Members was that they do not have confidence in Mr. Blom-Cooper. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central is entitled to say that the wrong impression was given, but it is characteristic of the Labour party to give the wrong impression. It is always doing that.

Mr. Fisher

Without labouring the point, that matter will be resolved by reading the Official Report. Nothing on the record will show that my right hon. or hon. Friends gave such an impression. It might be that Conservative Members misinterpreted sedentary remarks, which can easily cause confusion. However, I suspect that nothing in the record of today's debate will bear out the impression gained by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I am sure that he accepts that.

Mr. Gow

Certainly I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is being so agreeable that I have even referred to him as "my hon. Friend." However, during the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister—and it was an excellent speech —he referred to the chairman of the Press Council. He was not ruled out by your immediate predecessor in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, because he was not out of order. When my hon. Friend the Minister made that remark, it was greeted with derisory laughter from the Opposition Benches. I am not inventing that incident. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) agrees. It is not only lay right hon. and hon. Friends who concur with my account. Not one of my right hon. or hon. Friends quarrels with what I say. That does not happen very often, but it has happened this morning.

Mr. Watts

Does my hon. Friend agree that the exchanges between him and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) illustrate one of the essential difficulties in the Bill? Even a matter so simple and matter of fact as what was said earlier in the Chamber can give rise to great controversy. Equally intelligent right hon. and hon. Members, listening to the same words, and seeing the same facial expressions, can arrive at wholly different conclusions as to the intentions behind words that were spoken.

Mr. Gow

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who in former times was my Parliamentary Private Secretary. If I may so, he was excellent—and I hope very much that he will catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because he has an important contribution to make to our proceedings.

I do not want to devote my speech only to the subject of Mr. Blom-Cooper, but I place on record that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I have great confidence in his ability, intelligence and sense of honour. I set out to put some sense into the Bill, but that is not easy.

I welcome the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to our proceedings. Earlier, before you were in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker, the hon. Gentleman was seated not where he is now, below the Gangway, but on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that he will return there, because that is where he belongs.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)

Order. I notice, however, that we have amendments before us and that the hon. Gentleman has had more than five minutes on his preamble. I should be grateful if he would relate his remarks to the amendments.

Mr. Gow

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks).

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I feel that I belong to the Front Bench through instinct and merit, but, unfortunately, not through office held.

12.45 pm
Mr. Gow

It is a matter of deep regret to the whole House, but above all to him, that the hon. Gentleman is not seated on the Opposition Front Bench. Although the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) does not share the high regard which I have for the hon. Gentleman, I have good news for the hon. Gentleman. The right hon. Gentleman will not be leading the Labour party after the next election. Then will come the time for rapid preferment for the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Tony Banks

I cannot say that I necesarily wish such a scenario to come about or that I share the hon. Gentleman's predictions. If my promotion is as rapid as he suggests, I hope that my demotion is not as rapid as his was.

Mr. Gow

As a matter of fact, I was not dismissed. I may have departed before I was dismissed, but I was not dismissed. That is a reasonable point to make.

New clause 5, which has been studied so carefully by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, will put some sense into the Bill.

Mr. Greg Knight

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gow

I am trying to make progress. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) is now in his place, so I want to proceed.

New clause 5 provides that the Bill shall not become operative until a date selected by the Lord Chancellor. Why? My hon. Friend the Minister read out part of an excellent article by Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. We cannot have the Bill becoming operational before we have set up the press commission. Does my hon. Friend understand that point? The Bill cannot become law until we have appointed 21 members of the press commission. I am sure that he agrees.

I want the Lord Chancellor to decide by statutory instrument when the date shall be. That is perfectly common procedure. It is commonplace for an Act of Parliament to include a date on which that Act shall take effect. The hon. Member for Newham, North-West agrees. We have no such clause in the Bill. That is why I have tabled new clause 5, which is supported by some of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Renton

I am following my hon. Friend's argument with rapt attention. I am hoping that he will explain why the Lord Chancellor, rather than my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, should give his seal of approval to the time when the Bill shall come into force. After all, the Home Secretary would appoint the members of the commission. Earlier this week he was quoted as saying that that would be a heavy task to which he was not greatly looking forward. I may not have quoted him exactly, but that was the message of his remarks. I am not wholly clear yet why the Lord Chancellor, rather than the Home Secretary, should trigger off the Act, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will soon enlighten me.

Mr. Gow

For the very reason to which I referred in an intervention before 10 o'clock this morning. The words "The Secretary of State" in a Bill do not mean only the Home Secretary; they mean any Secretary of State.

The point that I want to make in response to the Minister's intervention is that I have much greater confidence in my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor than I have in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. The Secretary of State for Wales has strange views about economic and monetary policy. He is one of those people who still do not understand what most of us already understand about economic and monetary policy. Even the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) understood. He was the first Socialist monetarist.

The right hon. Member should take my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales for a long walk over the hills, and explain to him that, when the rate of growth of the supply of money and the rate of growth of the supply of goods and services get out of balance, the consequence is inflation. That is why we do not want the Secretary of State for Wales making the appointments. If one is unsound on an issue such as monetary policy, one's judgment can be affected dramatically in other ways.

Mr. Batiste

Can my hon. Friend help those of us who were concerned about the way in which the Bill appeared to be creating some Orwellian nightmare of a Ministry of Justice? Leaving aside the personalities in the various offices, but, looking purely at the comparison between, for example, the posts of Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor and drawing upon my hon. Friend's unrivalled experience in the House and of the people who have held those offices in the past, does my hon. Friend believe that it is inherent in the various responsibilities of those two offices that the Lord Chancellor would be the better person to deal with those difficult issues?

Mr. Gow

My hon. Friend has made an important point. It was not only the views of the Secretary of State for Wales that made me put down the new clause. Why I seek massive support for the new clause is that my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor is under assault from the judges. When my noble Friend is under assault, we in this place can put down a marker to show our confidence in him. We have to appoint 21 members of the press commission, which is far too many and one of my amendments seeks to bring it down to five. My noble Friend deserves the confidence of the House in deciding when the Bill shall become operative. We want to show some of the judges, who have been criticising my noble Friend's proposals, that we back him. In the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), we are giving him another job. My hon. Friend is well versed in all matters related to journalism. Indeed, he is a distinguished writer himself. I wish that he would write more frequently in the newspapers and speak mare frequently in this place.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

I am longing to.

Mr. Gow

I shall give way to my hon. Friend.

One cannot allow the Bill to become operative on the day that it reaches the statute book, because those 21 folk must be in place. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South would be a very good member of the press commission, but I am not volunteering him for that post. Certainly, we do not want the Secretary of State for Wales to be involved, because he is unsound on monetary policy.

Mr. Roger King

What about my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath)?

Mr. Gow

No, I shall not mention him any more.

The third and most important reason is that we want to show our confidence and trust in my noble Friend. I believe that it is a very uncontroversial new clause. It will be widely welcomed. I am sure that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, who sits alone on the Opposition Front Bench, will welcome it warmly, but we shall receive no welcome from any representative of the Liberal party. We have noted that there has been an absence of any representative on the Liberal Benches even though the Liberal party is constantly proclaiming its concern about the press. It is a characteristic disgrace that there is no representative of the Liberal party here.

Mr. Wareing

I want to strike a serious note in relation to this subject.

Amendment No. 96 is of particular interest to me. When my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) introduced the Bill, it was with the serious intention of ensuring that the press commission, which he proposes to take the place of the inane, anachronistic and toothless tiger, the Press Council, should be accountable to the House of Commons.

If there is to be accountability to the elected House of this Parliament, there must be a Minister—in this case the Home Secretary—who should be responsible for answering questions or listening to complaints and problems which hon. Members, elected by their constituents, raise on the Floor of the House.

If the press commission had been in place during the past week, I and other colleagues on the Labour Benches and, possibly on the Government Benches, would have been raising some of the matters that we have unfortunately had to see in the pornographic sections of the British press. I would have been able to say to the Home Secretary—I could not say it to the Lord Chancellor —that he should look at the creatures who were able, on Wednesday, to publish their filth on the front page of The Sun. Incidentally, that is the same newspaper which got one of its journalists to ring me up a couple of months ago when a Conservative Member suffered the misfortune of his wife's death. That journalist telephoned me on a Sunday and pried into the private life of that hon. Gentleman. I told that journalist to get off, get himself another job—this time a job with dignity. Nobody with any dignity would work for The Sun.

In my home town of Liverpool there is now a massive boycott of that newspaper, a boycott which I wholeheartedly support. I hope that people up and down the country who have read the filth in Rupert Murdoch's paper will in future say no to buying any newspapers from that stable, including The Times.

No one in this country should be permitted to own more than one newspaper. If the Minister and other Conservative Members believe what they say about competition, there should be competition in the press. It should be possible for other proprietors to publish newspapers so that a wide stratum of opinion is expressed in our national press.

When the Minister reviews the situation—he says that he intends to do so—it is important to take on board the feeling on the Labour Benches that the Home Secretary is the right Minister to be responsible for answering to the House.

I hope—I suppose it is a forlorn one—that my hon. Friend's Bill will become law during this Session. I have no doubt that the Bill will become law in the due process of time, because we shall return to this subject time and time again. I hope he will understand, however, that we must have a Minister in the House of Commons responsible for answering for any press commission—or, if my hon. Friend is unfortunate, for the Press Council.

The Press Council, as I have said, is a toothless tiger which came into existence in the 1940s. The Royal Commission on the press stated in 1948 that the regular diet of the British public on a Sunday was crime, sex and violence; that has not changed after 40 years of the Press Council. Now we need a body with real teeth to take up the complaints that we bring to the House—even, perhaps, complaints about hon. Members who give quotes to the national press rather than raising points in the House.

1 pm

On Monday the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Patnick) was called by Mr. Speaker to question the Home Secretary following his statement about the Hillsborough disaster. I have not seen the hon. Gentleman here since. If he had been here, it might have been possible to persuade him to raise in the House points that we could then have contested.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we are dealing with a new clause that is fairly specific. I should be obliged if he would direct his comments towards it.

Mr. Wareing

I am trying to make the point, Madam Deputy Speaker, that amendment No. 96 attempts to transfer accountability from this House to the other place. The Lord Chancellor may have highly desirable qualities as a judge: he may be able, very rationally and properly, to make appointments to certain bodies—for example, the Council of Tribunals. The Home Secretary, however, is the right Minister to refer to the press commission matters raised by constituents.

Constituents have taken the trouble—and have used their money—to telephone me in London, 200 miles from the constituency, to complain about what has been said in The Sun. Many people believe that the press is not sensitive enough in other respects. I heard the Minister mention on the radio this morning the recent case involving the Princess Royal's letters, and I have referred to the hon. Member who was bereaved in the recent past.

Surely to God there is a need for the Bill. Surely to God there is a need for a press commission—for something more than we have had over the past 40 years, which has not altered the press one little bit. Surely it is right for the Home Secretary to be able to exercise some control, on behalf of this democratic body, over the national press. We hear talk about freedom of the press, but there is no free press in this country. There are fewer newspapers and fewer newspaper proprietors than there were in 1948.

We should be able to question the Home Secretary. We do not wish to listen to Rupert Murdoch's vicars on earth on the Conservative Benches; we want our constituents' complaints to be dealt with. Who is in a position to redress the foul material that we have seen in The Sun this week, or even to register a complaint against the large photograph displayed on the front page of the Daily Mirror? To whom should we complain in the light of the last 40 years of Press Council inactivity, unwillingness or inability to deal with what happened throughout that period? It has to be the Home Secretary.

Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North)

My hon. Friend asks who should be responsible for dealing with press outrages. He referred, rightly, to the absolute horror of the people of Liverpool over the headlines in The Sun and The Star and the abominable, frightening and terrifying photographs of the disaster. At the time of the Valley Parade football ground disaster in my constituency, there were press allegations that the fire had been started deliberately by incendiarists. They caused enormous anguish to many people in Bradford who were already devastated by the injuries and the loss of life. Nothing was done about that, despite the fact that the Popplewell inquiry found that those allegations were completely erroneous and untrue. As the representative of a constituency that suffered from such a disaster, I can only sympathise with my hon. Friend and the people of Liverpool who have had to put up with not only the Hillsborough disaster but the filth and calumny that has been heaped upon them by the dregs of the press.

Mr. Wareing

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. I hope that it registers with Ministers. That would be in the interests of the families of the 95 people of Liverpool who died and of all those who suffered as a result of the fire at the Valley Parade football ground in Bradford. They are far and away more important than millionaire tycoons, some from overseas, who are allowed to get away with all this filth without any real action being taken against them by a Minister of the Crown.

When the Right of Reply Bill ultimately reaches the statute book it is important that the Minister with responsibility for these matters should be able to refer them to a press commission that has real teeth and that can dispossess these people—or creatures; that is how they are looked on by my constituents in Liverpool. That is why we oppose the new clause. All that the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) seeks to ensure is that the problem is moved further and further away from the democratic representatives of constituents and that it is dealt with by the other place. We must ensure that the Home Secretary is able to deal with these creatures of the press. I hope that we shall create a press commission that has the power to impose real penalties on wrongdoers who are doing more damage to the press than any damage of which pornographers could be accused.

Mr. Greg Knight

I wish to speak briefly about my amendments which are grouped with new clause 5—Amendments Nos. 76, 77, 84 and 88. I invite the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) to say at the end of my speech that he is prepared to accept the amendments. Their purpose is to alter the appointments procedure. According to the Bill, the Secretary of State would appoint all the Members of the press commission for the first year. The amendments provide that in subsequent years only half the members would be appointed by the Secretary of State and that the other half would be appointed by the press commission.

I urge the promoter of the Bill to accept the amendments because, under the Bill as drafted, the Secretary of State would have complete control over the press commission because it would allow him to appoint all its members. That raises important questions about the independence of the press commission and the issue of Government control. Some fear that a future Government might use the press commission as a Government agent to exercise a form of censorship. I was shocked that yesterday the Evening Standard expressed that very fear. Its editorial column headed, "Rights and wrongs" stated: By giving the most secretive Government in the Western world statutory control of the Press, it would inhibit our fundamental purpose to investigate and write about matters of real public interest … Nor is there anything to protect the newspaper from frivolous demands for reply, each of which would have to go before the Government-appointed press commission for settlement within 28 days. There are already fears that the press commission would act as an arm of Government.

I was absolutely amazed by the comments in the Evening Standard because I regard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary as one of the most liberal Home Secretaries we have had, and I am sure that those fears are groundless. Nevertheless they have to be taken into account. To give the press and the public confidence in the press commission's independence, clearly the Government should relinquish some of their control over it. The easiest solution would be for the Secretary of State initially to appoint all the members of the press commission, but subsequently it would be reasonable and sensible for the press commission to appoint a proportion of its members —my amendment has suggested half—so that accusations such as that in the Evening Standard cannot fairly and reasonably be made.

Mr. Batiste

It will be clear from some of my interventions in the debate that I am unhappy with the drafting of the Bill. I abstained on Second Reading because I hoped that the Bill would emerge from Committee in a form that I would find acceptable. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) is in his place as it is important that he understands why some of us have opposed his Bill today, but would not necessarily oppose a future Bill on similar lines were it drafted and structured differently.

I fully appreciate the disappointment that the hon. Gentleman must feel, having been successful in the ballot and having chosen an important subject for his private Bill, to see it disappear into the sands of time on Report. Having read the Committee Hansard, I recognise the good nature in which the Bill has proceeded, and I should not like him to feel that I was aggrieved at the way in which he handled my earlier attempt to ask him questions. By the same token, I hope that he will pay serious attention to the points that I should like to make about new clause 4 and, the amendments grouped with it.

I should disclose an interest in the sense that I am a lawyer and my law firm acts for a wide variety of clients, some of whom publish local newspapers, but not for the national or tabloid press. On occasions we have acted for those who are deeply aggrieved at what goes into the press, so I have been able to examine the issue from both sides. Perhaps my greatest interest, as a lawyer, is that the Bill as drafted would create so much extra work for lawyers in the courts that it would go a very long way towards replacing the loss of the conveyancing monopoly. In that sense perhaps I am speaking against my interests in saying that I should prefer a Bill that was less likely to come to the courts for judicial review and interpretation of so many of its clauses.

The core of my concern is the nature of the press commission. As the Bill is drafted, there is the potential for the commission to become, as I said earlier, some Orwellian nightmare of a Ministry of Justice, having in place all the apparatus of oppressive censorship, including a kangaroo court, palm tree justice and all the other things that I would find unacceptable in any other area of judicial activity in Britain.

1.15 pm

The amendments relate to a particular part of the Bill so I shall confine my comments to that. However, flowing from that is a wider range of issues which concern my hon. Friends and myself. We are genuinely appreciative of all the points that have been raised by hon. Members and by many of our constituents. They are fed up with the antics of some sections of the press and their incapacity to appreciate the resentment they have created by their behaviour. Nobody outside the House should think that those of us who have been trying to amend the Bill to a form that we would find acceptable are offering comfort to those sections of the press. Should a Bill appear next year, either from a private Member or the Government, our reactions would not necessarily be the same.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman said that his actions and those of his hon. Friends should not be interpreted in that way. Does he not understand that that is how the tabloid press will interpret them? The press will take comfort from his comments and will see that they are being enabled to go on in this thoroughly unacceptable manner because hon. Members have sought to block this constructive Bill.

Mr. Batiste

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, because I can do no more than put on record my interpretation and, if any other interpretation is drawn from my comments, it will be wrong.

I have had considerable experience of the way in which tribunals in different areas operate. I have to balance the wrongs done to some individuals, which are so far without remedy for all sorts of reasons that have been described during the debate, with what I would see as the hamstringing of the press. That is not just a convenient slogan for trying to stick up for newspaper barons. It is an appreciation of the fact that one of the important pillars of a democracy is a press which at times is willing to make itself unpopular with Governments and people in trying to expose the truth. The press may sometimes go over the line, but, in balancing those issues, it would be wrong for a Member of Parliament to support what seems to be easy and popular now while placing in hostage the future of something that is fundamental to our democracy.

I support some amendments in the group and not others, the switch from the Secretary of State to the Lord Chancellor in the appointment of members of the press commission appears in one of the amendments. It will be clear from what I have said that my main concern is caused by the nature of the press commission. Clause 2 states that the press commission shall comprise 21 members … appointed by the Secretary of State. I looked for some further clarification as to the balance of the commission. I looked to paragraphs 5 and 6 of the schedule but I found that the only balance listed is in terms of race, gender and regional representation in society. Those are important matters, but when one is appointing a group of people who can have a profound effect on our society, many other factors should be taken into account.

For that reason, we must look at the nature of the appointment of those people. I should have preferred to see much more specification in the Bill. When quangos are created elsewhere, a careful balance between the competing interests is usually provided in the Bill. It is a grave omission that there is no such balance in this Bill. The attempt at balance listed in the Bill does not carry any serious significance having regard to the nature of the work to be carried out by the commission. It has no boundaries and can deal with matters as they arise, but, because of its voluntary nature, it does not need safeguards to prevent abuses of power. I appreciate hon. Members' points that the Press Council by no means fulfils that role, but I hope that the voluntary body created as a result of Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper's appointment and the changes that he is proposing will give the public and hon. Members greater confidence.

I accept, however, that there may have to be some form of statutory control, but, rather than creating a press commission, we should be considering a quasi-judicial body. Across many aspects of society, when it is deemed that the courts are too formal, long winded or costly to offer a reasonable and quick remedy, we have had much experience in the establishment of a variety of tribunals and appointments to them. I have experience of industrial relations, and much of the transformation in industrial relations over the past decade occurred as a result of industrial tribunals and the confidence that they have engendered in both sides of industry. A clear and sensible appeal procedure is available, and I should like us to take that direction.

I should like the promoter to accept that the implementation of this Bill and appointments made under it should be left with the most senior member of the judiciary. It is difficult not to feel strongly about the experiences of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), but moving to a system under the Lord Chancellor would not stifle the development of the Bill. Rather it would put it on a path for which there would be wider acceptability.

The role of such a body would be not only to hear complaints but to issue guidelines. I have difficulty understanding what this largely ill-defined body will do to establish guidelines without a clear indication of the methods that it must consider and what penalties will be available.

Bodies such as the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service have been charged with the duty of establishing guidelines to improve industrial relations. A solution to establishing a code of behaviour is not an insuperable problem, but the key to much of ACAS's success is that to a large degree it is voluntary and because of the treatment of its codes as evidence in hearings in industrial tribunals it carries much weight. The amendments that shift the balance from the Home Office to the Lord Chancellor and the judicial system must be an important step in the right direction for future Bills.

Under the proposed amendments the new body would be established by a statutory instrument. The House should have another opportunity to express its will before a Bill is passed because there are bound to be developments between now and then that hon. Members should take into account. I should be willing to support an amendment to that effect, but I am less enthusiastic about the other amendments that have been tabled, especially amendment No. 77, which proposes that initially the commission should comprise 21 members. I think that 21 members is far too many and should not like an amendment to expand that number because it could grow uncontrollably if there were no limits.

Although I share the disappointment of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie that his Bill will not get on the statute book, I hope that he will accept that there is a great deal of good will for his aims, even among hon. Members who have spoken against aspects of the Bill. We are looking forward to seeing legislation that will redress the considerable wrongs that undoubtedly exist in a way that we can accept.

Mr. Grocott

I should, perhaps, declare an interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists, although I do not agree with the approach of my union to the Bill. I also could not disagree more strongly with the views of the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste), who said that he did not consider the Home Secretary to be the right person to deal with appointments to the press commission. The Home Secretary is precisely the right person for an extremely important reason. He already has the statutory responsibility across broadcasting for ensuring that a range of objectives, similar to those we are trying to obtain in the Bill, are secured.

The Minister of State gave a wholly unacceptable reply to my earlier intervention. Home Office Ministers are responsible under the Broadcasting Act 1981 for the Independent Broadcasting Authority to satisfy itself that: all news in the programmes (in whatever form) is presented with due accuracy. That is the responsibility throughout independent television. It is astonishing that the Home Office should take the view that it is important to ensure fairness, impartiality and accuracy in broadcasting, yet should not seem to be concerned to ensure those objectives for the press.

It is odd that Home Office Ministers should keep saying that the whole matter is unworkable. That was also the gist of the comments of the hon. Member for Elmet. Of course, concepts such as fairness, impartiality and accuracy are difficult and we could all debate them for hours, but it seems that we keep trying to rediscover the wheel. Such questions are asked and dealt with day in and day out by the people whose business is to be involved in broadcasting journalism, and such questions are dealt with by means of documents such as the television programme guidelines, which lay down sensible requirements about accuracy and the necessity to correct inaccuracies when they occur and, on live broadcasts, to ensure that the error is admitted as quickly as possible after the inaccuracy has occurred.

There are difficulties in implementing the guidelines, but no one believes that the regulations are a serious intrusion into the freedom of journalists and broadcasters. On the contrary, they enhance the quality of journalism. Journalists working in broadcasting do not feel inhibited by having to work under such guidelines. I have not yet met one journalist who has said that he will not leave printed journalism to join the broadcasting section because he would be hopelessly inhibited in what he could say. There is no shortage of people wanting to leave printed journalism to go into broadcasting.

These are commonsense rules and regulations. They are spelt out and are open for anyone to see. People can see copies of the television guidelines in the Library. One can complain if one feels that one has been treated unjustly and, ultimately, the Home Secretary has the statutory power to see, through the Independent Broadcasting Authority, that frequently offending companies are no longer able to broadcast when the franchises come up for review. No one sees such a regulatory framework as unfair or restrictive—the spectres raised by Conservative Members who suggested that we are trying to create a monster through this innocuous and gentle little Bill.

It is surely far better that the pressures and controls are made open. I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has left us. He sat through the earlier part of the debate and had I known that he would not be here when I spoke, I would have informed him accordingly. I thought that he might want to listen to the whole debate, rather than to rely on what the press has to say on the matter. It is astonishing for him to talk about restricting the freedom of the press when, as a senior Minister, he did his utmost to intimidate the BBC. I infinitely prefer regulations that are clearly spelt out and understood, and to which everyone can refer when the need arises, to the nasty little phone call and to the nod and the wink, more in keeping with the style of the right hon. Member for Chingford.

1.30 pm

What do we need to fear, and why is not the Home Office being consistent? I think that the Home Secretary should make the appointments and I await in vain a proper explanation of why the Government want to regulate broadcasting but not the press. I fear that the answer is the answer given by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher): they want broadcasting to follow the example of The Sun. Their approach will then have the merit of consistency, although it will be a deeply depressing day for freedom and for the accuracy, objectivity and quality of journalism.

The Government tell us that the proposed Broadcasting Bill takes the press as its model. The Home Secretary himself has said that it will give people the choice that they have when they thumb through newspapers in a newsagent's shop. There are two models for accurate news and current affairs reporting in this country. One is the press—in particular the tabloid press—and the other is public sector broadcasting. I know which model I prefer. It is absolutely essential that we are consistent in our approach to these matters, and to look to the example of the broadcast media is infinitely preferable to the alternative.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Mr. Ian Aitken—[HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"]—I am sorry, Mr. Jonathan Aitken.

Mr. Aitken

I have not changed sides yet, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) had a point when he complained about the possible lack of consistency in our approach towards broadcasting standards and standards in the press. Only last week, I was able to draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in a question to the fact that the Government and the Home Office had endorsed the latest EEC directive on broadcasting and television which enshrines in EEC legislation the principle of a right of reply. It is somewhat bizarre to find the Government apparently endorsing the right to reply by stealth in Brussels while being so oddly equivocal about it—to put it politely—in this place.

Mr. Renton

My hon. Friend's words "by stealth" have stung me into action. My hon. Friend should know that the original draft of the EC directive contained the words "right of reply". We specifically arranged for that article to be changed to ensure that all that Britain had to do to comply with the directive was to continue with our Broadcasting Complaints Commission, which has existed for a long time and whose remit specifically and only covers unjust or unfair treatment … or unwarranted infringement of privacy in, or in connection with the obtaining of material included in, sound and television programmes. Those are the limited objectives of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The EC directive deals only with broadcasting, in any case, and we ensured that the relevant article was amended to make it clear that we should merely have to continue with our present Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Mr. Aitken

Even that limited achievement would be welcome in legislation on the press. By the words "by stealth" I meant "by parliamentary stealth". The fact remains that the House has been given no opportunity whatever to debate the directive, which is a matter of some shame in the way in which we deal with European legislation.

Mr. Renton

My hon. Friend has forgotten that the draft directive was debated way back in January 1987.

Mr. Aitken

We are getting away from the Bill. That was an extremely bad point. The directive, which has been massively redrafted, is heading for ratification by the Commission. As the Select Committee on European Legislation discovered the other day, it has not been properly debated. There has been quite a row on the matter. My hon. Friend the Minister may be more astray with his facts than I am. I want to get back to the new clause.

Mr. Gow

Is my hon. Friend aware that every one of his hon. Friends, with the sole exception—I am sorry to have to say this—of my hon. Friends the Minister and the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household agrees with him about that EEC directive? I want him to know that he has unanimous support, apart from the two present occupants of the Treasury Bench.

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) said that he would like to get back to the new clause. I am sure that he will do so now.

Mr. Aitken

I am heartened by the unanimity of support for what I have said so far. I suspect that mine will be the only Conservative voice in favour of the much-maligned Bill. I am glad to support the new clause which was ably and amusingly moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow).

The new clause raises the issues whether the Bill should be handled by the Lord Chancellor and whether it should be delayed at the Lord Chancellor's discretion. I suspect that that was the prime purpose of my hon. Friend's thinking. Many experts on delaying tactics are present. I hardly think that it is necessary to drag in the poor old Lord Chancellor as a delaying long-stop. Nevertheless, although I support the Bill, I am not unduly critical of the delaying tactics which have been used by some of my hon. Friends. All is fair in love, war and parliamentary procedure, as the saying goes.

There is some merit in pausing and thinking about the Bill. Neither my hon. Friends nor the editors who have addressed us through a microphone over the past few days needed to have got quite so hot under the collar about the Bill. It is flawed to some extent, and the flaws were visible from the start. Three months ago, I wrote to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) to say that I would start with him on the Bill but that I had some doubts about whether I would finish with him. There are some genuine doubts, some of which may be resolved by the introduction of the delaying mechanism of the Lord Chancellor.

I pay a genuine tribute to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. He has done more than any other individual in recent memory to start the important process of cleaning up the Augean stables of the British tabloid press. There is wide agreement that the clean-up should take place. We seem to disagree on the methods by which it should take place. Should it involve statutory legislation? Should it involve the Home Secretary? Should it involve the Lord Chancellor?

I am attracted to the new clause, not least because of the persuasive arguments which were put forward on legal or quasi-legal grounds by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste). The new clause envisages the Bill being passed and then being suspended like some legal sword of Damocles over the head of the British press until it can be dropped on it—presumably after acts of further misbehaviour—at the discretion of the Lord Chancellor. If we accept the new clause and pass the Bill, we will give the British press one last chance to put its own house in order. If it does not do so, the Bill—warts and all, flaws and all —will crash down on the head of what used to be called Fleet street.

The cry "Let's give the press one last chance" has been heard with great frequency and intensity in the past few days. There has been an almost hysterical reaction to the Bill from editorial writers, proprietors, editors and journalists. I have been much amused by all the comment. I was riveted to receive an expensive glossy brochure from Mr. Max Hasting, the editor of The Daily Telegraph. I was even more amused when the editor of the "Sunday Lonhro" addressed us all last Sunday in an editorial of Guardian-like length about the need to kill off the Bill. If there is one newspaper at what used to be called the quality end of the market that has sacrificed all pretence to integrity and impartiality, it is the "Sunday Lonhro" and its journalists—or, as they should now be called, `Rowlandists'.

The serious aspect of press over-reaction to the Bill is that if only one tenth of the energy, dedication, crusading zeal and expense that the press put into opposing the Bill was devoted to putting its own house in order, there would be no need for the Bill and for Parliament to spend time on the matter. If the press does want to put its house in order, I see precious little sign of any serious intention to do so.

One of the ways in which the press could put its own house in order is to spend much more of its own money on the Press Council, giving that enfeebled but well-intentioned organisation better-paid staff, more professionals, and its own investigators, lawyers and publicity budget. The national press could well afford to do that.The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph make profits of more than £30 million a year. The Sunday Times, whose editor has been just as pompous as other editors in his comments on the Bill's weaknesses, makes more than £70 million per year. Its stablemate The Sun, makes more than £60 million per year. The national press as a whole is making unprecedented profits of about £250 million a year. What proportion of those enormous profits goes to the Press Council—the only alternative regulating body to that proposed in the Bill?

It is revealed on page 213 of the Press Council's 1988 annual report that the Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents the entire resources of all national newspapers, contributed £276,000—about 0.1 per cent., or one tenth of one per cent. of the profits of the national press—to the goal of self-regulation. I say to the press that it should put its money where its big mouth is. Instead of the Press Council having a £500,000 budget, it should have a budget of about £5 million to do the job that the Minister and the amendment want it to do.

In the absence of serious press money or intentions, new clause 5 returns to the whole question of statutory regulation and who should enforce it—the Lord Chancellor or the Home Secretary. I am a late convert to the right of reply cause. For most of my own journalistic and political life I have held aloft the rather tattered banner of press freedom. I opposed the first right of reply Bill introduced by Mr. Frank Allaun. I am still nervous about supporting a measure that will undoubtedly impose restrictions on the press. One of the strong reasons for my nervousness is that most of the British press does not need or deserve right of reply legislation. We should all feel a certain sadness that so many decent national and regional newspapers that report the news fairly and honourably correct their own mistakes are confronted with a Bill of this kind because they are tarred with the brush of the lower tabloids. What a mean and dirty brush it is.

Mr. Fisher

The hon. Gentleman remarks that many national and regional newpapers do not deserve the Bill. However, if they are careful about the accuracy of their reporting, they have nothing to fear from the Bill—contrary to the impression given by many journalists in editorials and features over the past few days.

Mr. Aitken

I agree that the Bill, even with its undoubted flaws, does not hold out the threat of a sword of Damocles —as I called the amendment—to the decent press. After all, right of reply legislation exists in many other countries without provoking the excitable reaction we have witnessed over the past few days.

There is a cancer growing at the heart of the British press today. At the centre of that cancer is the fact that some tabloid newspapers have moved right away from reporting the news and from all forms of traditional journalism, investigative or otherwise. At the lower end of the tabloid market, journalism has been replaced by voyeurism. The reporter's profession has been infiltrated by a seedy stream of rent boys, pimps, bimbos, spurned lovers, smear artists bearing grudges, prostitutes and perjurers. It is a cast of shame which has not been seen in public since the trial of Oscar Wilde. Yet here it is propping up the pages of the tabloids with monotonous and tasteless regularity. That is the force that makes constituents say to Members of Parliament, "Get on and do something about it".

Mr. Corbyn

The hon. Gentleman draws an excellent analogy between the lack of a right of reply in the United Kingdom and its existence in other countries. Does he agree that Britain and Australia are the two countries with the most concentrated ownership of newspapers and, possibly, the worst quality of tabloids in the world? Countries with a diversity of ownership tend to have a far better quality of average newspaper than we have.

1.45 pm
Mr. Aitken

The concentration of ownership is undesirable. As the story of the Irishman goes, "I would not have started from here" with this concentration of ownership in the British press or with the even greater concentration that exists in the Australian press.

There could, however, be some advantages in the concentration of ownership when it comes to cleaning up the act. It is not circulation wars, competition or the fight for profits that have brought about this unhappy position. It is, to use an old-fashioned label, the moral standards of certain proprietors and editors which has caused the rot to set in. A newspaper, like a fish, rots from the head downwards. Certain newspaper proprietors have given encouragement and promotion to a thoroughly evil clique of lower tabloid editors, whose ruthlessness and recklessnes with the truth is so notorious that their papers publish lies regularly and unashamedly.

The House is considering the Bill because Parliament thinks that it is time for the lying to have to stop. The question is: who will stop it? Clearly, the Government are not keen to stop it now. Until today their most memorable contribution to the argument about standards in the lower tabloids was to recommend the previous editor of The Sun for a knighthood. So much for Victorian values.

The announcement today of my hon. Friend the Minister that the British tabloids are now on probation is like putting Jack the Ripper or the Boston strangler on probation. It is not likely to be effective. One then turns to the courts, which brings me to the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet. Can the courts in any judicial form with the help of the Lord Chancellor, whose role in this is important, do anything to stop the lying? They are doing their best. Juries' massive awards of libel damages are a symptom of the public's distaste for what is going on, but for every Koo Stark, Elton John or Jeffery Archer, there are 50 ordinary individuals libelled just as gravely in terms of loss of reputation, who simply cannot afford to use the libel laws to seek redress. Courts of law, like the Ritz hotel, are open only to those who can afford them.

The tabloids now write into their editorial budgets costs for settling libel actions. It is a lie now, pay later habit. If a tabloid makes as much as £1 million a week, settling two or three libel actions at £30,000 or £40,000 a time makes a small dent in the profits.

To illustrate how ineffective the courts are, even at the most excitable and dramatic end of the scale, I shall run through the most spectacular libel case of them all. This will show why we need the involvement of the Lord Chancellor. The case of Elton John v. The Sun was the worst of its kind, not just because of the viciousness of The Sun's smear capaign or size of the libel damages, but because of the fascinating insight which it gave the world into the techniques and tactics of the newspaper, particularly from the moment after it knew that it had made a disastrous mistake.

The headlines tell their own story. On 25 February 1987, The Sun newspaper splashed across its front page: "Elton in Vice Boys Scandal". On the next day the headline was, "Elton's Kinky Kinks"; on the next, "Elton's Drug Capers" and on the next, "Elton's Pink Tutu Party". There was a series of allegations about drugs, male prostitutes and bondage. Every smear, criminal and moral, was in those articles.

Those stories were prepared by the editor of The Sun, Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie, and appeared under the byline of his brother, Mr. Craig MacKenzie. That was the gentleman who The Independent told us has a nickname in the confines of The Sun of the "bouncing bog brush". Mr. Murdoch is not in favour of jobs for the boys, but he appears to be in favour of jobs for the brothers and jobs for the bog brushes.

Those bouncing bog brushes smeared their filth for days and days across the front page of the newspaper. However, there was a central flaw in those stories. They were entirely made up. They were sheer unadulterated fiction. The basis for those stories was uncorroborated allegations contributed by a rent boy, who appeared in The Sun as Mr. Graham X, but whose real name was Mr. Stephen Hardy. He was paid by The Sun £2,000 down and a retainer of £250 a week.

In a riveting feature published in The Independent magazine, published in February, Stephen Hardy said: 97 per cent. of it was untrue. I would give The Sun a line and they would write it all up. It was a manufactured story. What is fascinating about that, and why we need the Lord Chancellor, as suggested in new clause 5, is that The Sun discovered early in the procedure that it was horribly wrong. It had clearly not done its homework, it had not checked the story and it knew that it was printing lies.

What did The Sun do, however, when at the very start of the procedure, Mr. Elton John, through his lawyers, sought a retraction, an apology and a right of reply? Despite knowing that it was wrong—after printing the big lie—it decided it would win through by going for a bigger lie. It then doubled its pressure, as can be seen from the headline on 27 February, which said: "You're a Liar Elton." I might add that that is a familiar technique of The Sun. There was a famous Press Council ruling about a Wapping lorry driver called Mr. McCabe. The Sun printed all kinds of nonsence about him and he went to the Press Council. He obtained a ruling in his favour. The Sun then printed the Press Council's ruling under the headline, You"re Still a Lying Trucker. The Sun continued to scour the planet for more filth on Mr. Elton John. It paid £10,000 for polaroid pictures of him nude with a man, which had nothing to do with its original allegations. The Independent said: The Sun's game plan was to keep on hitting Elton John so hard that he would give up long before the judge heard the matter. That is what The Sun tried to do, but Elton John stuck to his guns and he received £1 million in libel damages and an apology from The Sun—which infuriated the judge—"Sorry, Elton." It was a cheeky style of apology.

The story of The Sun's handling of that case has clearly shown what its moral standards are. Paying £1 million must have hurt even Mr. Murdoch's pockets, but clearly it was not enough. Mr. MacKenzie is still in his place. No one appears to have been fired over the incident. There has been no proper apology to the public or to the readers. As the judge said in the case of Elton John, it was a pretty cheeky kind of apology that was eventually printed. Therefore, it is not satisfactory to say that the courts are adequately handling the matter through the antique machinery of the libel laws. If The Sun is making more than £1 million a week, it can afford to pay £1 million in damages.

The Press Council has been held up by the Minister as a great shield and the reason we do not need the Bill: warts and all, the Press Council will do the job for us. However, in the past the Press Council has been absurdly weak and ineffective. We are asked to believe that the arrival of Louis Blom-Cooper—my hon. Friend paid tribute to him when moving the new clause—means that all will change. It is believed that somehow Hercules has arrived at the Augean stables or Superman has reached the sewage farm. We had the same high hopes when Sir Zelman Cowan was brought from Australia. He presided over the most disastrous deterioration of standards in the history of Fleet Street.

I am somewhat underwhelmed by the prospect of Mr. Blom-Cooper's new broom. I wish him well, but there are many things wrong with the Press Council. Editors do not have to appear in person, but I am glad that the NUJ is to take up Press Council membership; that is a step in the right direction. Complainants have no right to an oral inquiry, the findings, if published at all, are published in much too small type and, above all, the Press Council lacks resources.

What on earth is there to stop another Elton John, another McCabe, another spate of excesses? We see them almost daily in the tabloid newspapers. In the end the buck must come back to us. It is all very well to say that the press is on probation and that we should give it one more chance. I would love to believe that that approach would work, but I believe that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has done the House and the country a fine service. His Bill is full of flaws and, under parliamentary scrutiny, perhaps it does not deserve to reach the statute book yet—perhaps we need new clause 5 as a long stop.

In the end, unless there is a real change of heart, a new direction of resources and a new determination by the press to clean up its act, we will be back in business again, with some form of ferocious and totally deserved restrictive legislation on the press, which all of us would greatly regret.

Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I intend to be brief. We have just listened to a delightful speech from the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not try to follow him in wisdom and humour and if I try to stick to the amendment.

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), who introduced the new clause, is a bit unfair on the Lord Chancellor. I would have thought that he had enough problems on his hands dealing with the lawyers, of whom the hon. Gentleman is one, and he should leave the journalists alone. Lord Chief Justice Lane has ludicrously said that the Lord Chancellor is wearing a swastika on his arm and that he is leaning towards the right of Fascism. Lord Justice Donaldson is organising a strike and Queen's counsellors in this House are meeting in the all-party barrister's committee upstairs plotting the Lord Chancellor's downfall and, no doubt, his death. A previous Lord Chancellor, Lord Hailsham, has said that the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister are guilty of ideological baloney. I would have thought that that was enough for anyone to deal with and a good enough reason for leaving the Home Office to deal with this Bill.

I am sure that the Lord Chancellor would have been rather puzzled if he had read the papers this week. He would have pondered on how an unholy alliance has come about between the Home Secretary, the editor of The Guardian, Peter Preston, the editor of The Observer, Donald Trelford and the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Even the right hon. Gentleman must admit that it is an unholy alliance and that it was not always thus. I am sure that we were all pleased to see that the right hon. Gentleman took about £11,000 from The Guardian for telling lies about him, but I also understand that such an alliance will not always exist in the future. I believe that Donald Trelford, editor of The Observer is trying to make unkind comments about the right hon. Gentleman when he was Secretary of State for Industry concerning some shop and the House of Fraser. But they have all come together in a grand alliance and I am sure that the Lord Chancellor will be worried about that.

One serious argument in favour of handing over some of the responsibilities for the Bill to the Lord Chancellor's Department was highlighted when my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) compared the regulation of television with the regulation of the press. I speak as someone who worked in television for four years and as a Member of the NUJ who writes a bit now and then.

There is a genuine worry about the Home Office running the Bill, which might be a good argument in favour of the Lord Chancellor. The Home Office has used a system of censorship that has, for a long time, been secretive and unpleasant. Last night I was reading some history about the way in which censorship has operated in broadcasting. I asked myself whether we want the Home Secretary and, with great respect, the Minister present to have anything to do with the Bill? I thought back to the early 1980s when a television programme "Death of a Princess" was broadcast. Immediately the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary responded to criticism from Saudi Arabia and said that trade was more important than freedom of speech. They believed that we should censor that programme and that we should not show it again. More recently, I thought about another drama documentary. "Tumbledown", which dealt with the Falklands war. The Home Office made quiet noises, saying "We really do not think that this programme should be shown. There ought to be some censorship—some restriction of freedom of expression."

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I thought about another television programme, "Death on the Rock". Again, the Home Office made it clear that it did not want the programme to be shown. I remember "Real Lives", a television film in which a former Home Secretary was shifted elsewhere and then shunted off to Europe as part of his hurry-on-down process—I refer to Sir Leon Brittan.

I thought of the Zircon film, which again the Home Office did not want shown and which was suppressed. I thought of "My Country, right or wrong", another BBC programme that the Home Office wanted to be suppressed. I even thought of a drama which the Home Office had managed to stop, "Left Over People" by Tom Pickard. I remembered the BBC's attempts to secure a repeat of a drama called "United Kingdom" by Roland Joffé, on which I was a researcher.

Surely it would be better for the Bill to be dealt with by the Lord Chancellor than by the Home Secretary and the Minister who tried to censor all those programmes. The Home Office's record of censorship is appalling. Why are the editors of so-called radical papers, Peter Preston of The Guardian and Donald Trelford of The Observer, forming an unholy alliance to blast off against my hon. Friend's modest little Bill? It makes me wonder whether someone ought to pass the sick bag.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston)

The new clause and amendments raise two important questions—first, whether the Bill should come into effect on the day on which it is passed or at a later date, and, secondly, whether the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor should administer it.

The amendments, and the debate on them, illustrate the difficulties of the Bill, which I mentioned on Second Reading—the confusion between the judicial remedies and the types of remedy provided by the Press Council and the press commission, and the constitutional difficulty of Government-appointed nominees correcting factual errors in the press.

Obviously no Minister is rushing forward to carry out the responsibilities imposed by the Bill. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) seemed to see some sinister reason for the Government's lack of enthusiasm for the task, but I see some virtue in their reluctance to grapple with such powers. That reluctance stems from a recognition of the constitutional dangers of Government becoming involved in the correction of errors in the press. The examples quoted by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) illustrate the possible difficulties of a confrontation between the Government and the press about a number of sensitive matters.

I accept that, when circumstances require the exercise of something resembling judicial functions, there is a strong case for making the Lord Chancellor responsible for appointments and for the administration of the legislation. Recommendations have been made that planning and transport inspectors should come under the aegis of the Lord Chancellor, and I see the force of such arguments in the present context. I suggest that the duties that the Bill would impose would sit uneasily with the Lord Chancellor's other duties. The appointment of the Lord Chancellor to this task implies that the body to be created would be a much more judicial body than would really be the case. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is involved with broadcasting and television, I am led to the conclusion that, if a Minister is to be given the job, it should be given to him rather than to the Lord Chancellor.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) will tell us what he thinks about the starting date of the Bill. He says that history will be on the side of the Bill, but at no point did I hear him say that Opposition Front Bench spokesmen are behind it or its starting date. I heard him speak on Second Reading and I listened to his speech today. I should like him to clarify when, if at all, he considers that the Bill ought to come into force.

I listened with great sympathy to what was said by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) both on Second Reading and again today, and I share the admiration that has been expressed about the way he has conducted the Bill. However, the two difficulties that I have mentioned prevent me from supporting it. I believe that we should benefit from a delay in the starting date of the Bill, if it were to reach the statute book, in order to assess the reforms that the Press Council is undertaking. I envisage greater benefits from the reform of the Press Council than from the somewhat inadequate remedies that the Bill contains.

For those reasons, I do not support the inclusion of the Lord Chancellor in the Bill. I support, however, the deferment of the starting date so that there may be more time for further reflection.

Mr. Tebbit

I oppose the new clause for slightly different reasons from those that were given by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore). As is known, there has been an unholy alliance between myself and Mr. Peter Preston, who courageously published in his newspaper an article by me that attacked strongly his newspaper's record on this matter and brought out the fact that I had been forced to go to law to clear my name after an unfair and untrue allegation was published in his paper. That shows an element of courtesy and decency by The Guardian. I do not usually praise that newspaper, so I take this opportunity to do so.

The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch made the interesting point that he does not trust the Home Secretary to deal with these matters because of his record on the electronic media. He ought, therefore, to come all the way with me and say that he does not trust the record of Ministers or politicians as showing that they have any influence whatsoever over what the press should or should not publish. In that case, he would become, with me, an opponent of the Bill in general.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) said, that does not mean that there is not a great deal that is wrong with certain sections of the press. If we can find a way to bring more pressure to bear on them to change their attitudes, I am all for it. What gives me the greatest unease—whether it is the Lord Chancellor or the Home Secretary—is that Ministers would have the power to appoint people to what is called a press commission that would inevitably seek more and more power to deal with what the commission regard as press abuses.

We should not accept the new clause, although it was introduced so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), because when something gets into the hands of the legal profession and the Lord Chancellor it moves away from things that we ordinary mortals may comment on into a rarefied area where people go all judicial on us. It is very difficult to get Law Officers into a debate in the House about the conduct of their Department's affairs. It is not nearly so difficult to deal with a Secretary of State or a Home Secretary. That is why I disagree with my hon. Friend.

The most important result of the activities of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie is that the Government have been forced to think seriously about the extent of their responsibility for putting pressure on the press to publish or not to publish. I am totally against the so-called right of reply being a statutory right enforced by state-appointed commissioners. Quite rightly, the Government have concluded that they should conduct a broad-based inquiry and we should await any recommendations that might be produced.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Before my right hon. Friend leaves the appointment of commissioners, is he not terrified at the fact that clause 6 suggests that the commissioners shall issue guidelines and advice as necessary to improve editorial standards."? Does that not mean that Government-appointed commissioners could begin to judge exactly what the editorial content of newspapers may or may not be? That would be an extremely slippery slope.

Mr. Tebbit

To stay precisely in order, I have not referred to my amendment which would remove those powers from the press commission, if it were ever to be created.

As a consequence of the efforts of the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) newspaper proprietors must be beginning to think that, however many friends of the free press sit in the House—and I believe that the great majority of us believe in the concept of a free press—sooner or later we shall be rolled over by the forces of those who are prepared to dilute the freedom of the press to deal with a perceived wrong. That would be extremely dangerous.

Like many of the other irritants of democracy that we have to put up with, a free press is part of the price we have to pay. I am willing to pay that price. I have been hurt by the press more than once. Occasionally one can come back on the press, if one has the resources to do so. Most people cannot, but it is part of the price we pay for democracy. The press barons have to acknowledge that part of the price they must pay for the right to run newspapers, make profits out of newspapers and influence opinion through newspapers is that those newspapers have to be decent in the terms set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). It has been noticed that a certain group of newspapers appears to have changed slightly. Another group of newspapers adopts various standards for different newspapers in the group.

I would not say that the Daily Mirror is guiltless. Such headings as, "And you're a liar too", and "You're still a liar" did not only appear in The Sun, but also appeared in the Daily Mirror. There would be great disputes across the Floor of the House and elsewhere as to whether those headlines were true.

Standards have to be improved and today's debate must send a signal to those press barons saying, "If you want to continue to be in business with a free press in a free country, you must consider whether, exceptionally, a proprietor has not only the right but the responsibility to put pressure on his editors to behave in a manner which would enhance the reputation of the press and not damage it."

Mr. Fisher

To my surprise, I find myself in sympathy with much of what was said by the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). Like him, I cannot support the new clause, even though I enjoyed the amusing and elegant way in which it was moved by the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow). I was somewhat surprised, even shocked, by the vicious attack he launched on his right hon. Friend—I use the word "Friend" loosely or conventionally—the Secretary of State for Wales. Such clear splits in the Government so close to the by-election in the Vale of Glamorgan will have been noted.

2.15 pm

The hon. Member for Eastbourne raised some important issues. He addressed himself most clearly to the question of which Department should have responsibility for appointment. The prior and implicit issue raised in that is whether any Department should be involved. It is on this point that I have sympathy with the right hon. Member for Chingford. If we are serious about the independence of the press and broadcasting, we have to do everything we can to loosen Government ties. That is easier said than done. It is not only a matter of legislation. It is potently a matter of patronage in the appointment of members of the BBC, the IBA and commissions such as the press commission.

Although I strongly support everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has done in promoting the Bill, he knows that we have had differences of opinion and that I have some grave reservations about this part of the Bill. It leaves to the Government—any Government—patronage in appointing members of the press commission. We have to find some way of establishing independence. That is not easy, and it is not something that Her Majesty's Opposition have yet cracked.

The growth of patronage spreads across and weakens public life. The fingers of Government, whichever party is in power, are spread so widely across many public bodies in which it is not only unnecessary but counter-productive for the Government to be involved. Therefore, I agree with the right hon. Member for Chingford. However, the methods that one can envisage of creating independence in any such body and finding other ways through which those people can be appointed are either cumbersomely democratic or not yet clear to me.

Mr. Tebbit

It is not often that we find ourselves in so much agreement. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to come with me the next step of the way and say that it would be infinitely preferable if we did not have to have these forms of control, which inevitably mean that somebody—and who else but the Government?—has to appoint commissioners of some sort. I look forward to the day when there are as many channels on our radio and television as there are channels available in the press and when we can get rid of Government control of any sort, except in respect of decency, over television and radio. I hope that he will join me in that view.

Mr. Fisher

The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I will not join him in that view. There is a great deal of difference between the Government having a direct influence and control through patronage, and the responsibility of the Government, on behalf of our society, to set a framework that protects the rights of individuals and in which a diversity of programmes can be ensured in our broadcasting media.

Mr. Grocott

At the risk of driving a further wedge between my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) I must say that if there is to be Government involvement, it is better that it is understood and in statute than if it is the type of Government pressure that came from the right hon. Member for Chingford when he was a senior Minister in the Government. He applied quite nasty pressure on the BBC but he has been honest enough to admit that. I put it to him once that he had made veiled threats to the leaders of the BBC and he was honest enough to say, "When I make threats, they are not veiled."

Mr. Fisher

That succinct turn of phrase has a ring of authenticity. The right hon. Member for Chingford is nodding to confirm that he is the true author and begetter of the phrase. The phrase does him more credit than the instinct. I was in my local radio station the day after he made that statement in September or October 1986, and the effect of it on senior and experienced journalists was worrying. They were struck and concerned by such overt pressure from someone who was then a senior member of the Government.

Mr. Tebbit

The essence of the remark was that if I had made a threat it would have been open because I do not make behind-the-doors threats, such as those that have been made by some Governments in the past. I made no threat whatever because there was no open threat. The hon. Gentleman will not find on the record anywhere a threat that I made against the broadcasting authorities. There was a lot of pressure, yes, to tell the truth and to balance it fairly, but no threat.

Mr. Fisher

I think that we are getting into semantics, and I want to deal with the central point of the amendment—which Department should be responsible.

Curiously, under this Government and previous Governments, press matters are dealt with by the Department of Trade and Industry. The broadcasting world has been interested by the power struggle between the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Home Secretary. I am glad that in this instance the Home Secretary has been supreme and that the Minister of State, Home Office has guided the legislation.

Mr. Skinner

I have just had an article passed to me about the right of reply. It appears that the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) has been busily demanding a right of reply of the Waltham Guardian of 20 April 1989. The right hon. Gentleman complained in a letter that his name had been left out. My hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and other hon. Members are mentioned in this article. Although the right hon. Member for Chingford opposes this Bill, he demanded a right of reply from the editor of the Waltham Guardian and got one. The editor says; "Our apologies to Mr. Tebbit for the arm twisting". No, that is not him. He says: The omission was due to a paragraph falling off at the printers. Of course he has played a part in trying to remedy the Waltham Forest court situation, which we reported, and we are grateful to him and the borough's two other MPs. We are always ready to publish corrections to these reports where inaccuracies make a fundamental difference. The truth is that if many people in Waltham Forest had written to the editor and said, "I want my letter printed and a right of reply" they would have been refused.

Mr. Fisher

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that interesting and intriguing intervention.

Labour Members do not believe that the Department of Trade and Industry is the best Department to deal with the newspaper industry, because, like broadcasting, it is not just another industry but a key element in the culture and communications of our society. The public agenda, values, traditions, and ideas of our society are sustained arid carried by the press, so it must not be dealt with like textiles or other industries. It is essentially a cultural industry and should be so handled.

For the same reasons the Labour party is concerned that the Home Office is involved in the Bill. A Department that has responsibilities for prisons, probation and the control of immigration is not the appropriate Department to ensure the right of reply.

I share many of the concerns that were expressed passionately and eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (M r. Sedgemore), when he went through the Government's disgraceful record on editorial interference in programmes such as "Real Lives" and "My Country Right or Wrong", the injunctions on the BBC's "Death on the Rock" and the refusal to accept the Windlesham report. There was also their pressure through injunctions on The Guardian, The Independent and other newspapers, which is relevant to the Bill.

Mr. Renton

I greatly resent those ridiculous remarks. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that it is because of our wish to protect the freedom of the press that we have been carefully neutral on this Bill and the Protection of Privacy Bill despite the support for them from Members of all parties? We are anxious that there should be no statutory control of the press.

Mr. Fisher

The Government are incapable of protecting editorial independence in the press or broadcasting, so they do not recommend themselves as being likely to protect the rights of the public through the right of reply. The Government's record is against them.

For the same reason I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Eastbourne who proposed that the matter should be dealt with by the Lord Chancellor's Department. We are dealing with issues of culture, communications, access, editorial independence, and freedom of speech and information. A Labour Government will set up a Ministry to deal with the arts and the media—[Interruption.] We made it clear at the last general election that we would do that. The Ministry would have responsibility for the press and would be the most suitable Ministry for protecting editorial independence. Broadcasting, publishing and the press have issues such as access and editorial independence in common, but they have little in common with prisons, the probation service and immigration.

The next Labour Government will introduce a Bill dealing with the right of reply, although it will not be in precisely the same form as the present Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has often said, he has tried to carry hon. Members of a wide range of opinions with him, so he has pared down the Bill to its essence. He has removed broadcasting, which is included in such legislation in many other European countries and he has removed other elements. The possible defeat of the Bill gives the Labour party time to consider afresh the form in which it will introduce a similar Bill when in government which other hon. Members will support. It will be part of a package that protects the consumer against the unbridled power of the press and protects editorial independence and the strength of journalists. We desperately need freedom of information legislation to protect the rights of journalists, just as we must protect the right of reply for individuals. The House has accepted the principle that the public have such a right of reply. Next, we must introduce such a Bill.

Mr. Worthington

I want to express my appreciation to all the supporters of the Bill for the help that they have given. I also want to express my appreciation to the oppontents of the Bill. An enormous amount of help has been given to the framing of future legislation on the right of reply. We recognise the complexities of the issue, and Labour Members have a genuine addiction to a free press. I also welcome the Minister's statement that there is to be a review of matters of privacy and related issues. But I am sure that the Minister will recognise that his statement has rivalled any in the past in its vagueness about the remit of the review, and he made no statement on who was to chair it.

Let me conclude by emphasising the seriousness of this matter. Next week will be the first anniversary of the death of a young actor called David Scarboro who used to be in East Enders. His family, his fellow villagers and many of his colleagues on the cast of East Enders believe that his death was brought about largely by press harassment yet the News of the World and The Sun never acknowledged their part in the misery that that lad's life became. I hope that we shall remember cases like that as we wait for the Press Council to try to put its house in order.

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