§ Order for Second Reading read.9.35 am
§ Mr. John Browne (Winchester)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
At the outset, I should declare that I have interests in the media industry, both as a director of a satellite television company and as a member of the board of an international newspaper. I should declare, too, a general interest in this Bill, for I, like every man, woman and child, will stand to benefit from the protection that it offers.
I wish to record my sincere thanks to those eminent people who have helped me in drafting the Bill, including the Clerks of the House, the Library staff, my staff, especially Miss White, and other people in the House of Commons. Professional reasons prevent me from mentioning some of their names, but I can mention Mr. Peter Ashman of Justice, Mr. Mark Littman, QC, Mr. Henry King, a senior partner in David Polk and Wardwell in New York, and, of course, my old friend, Mr. Peter Carter-Ruck, that most eminent of solicitors who, together with Mr. Littman, chaired the key Justice report of 1970. to which I shall refer.
I thank, too, my sponsors, who come from both sides of the House, and, on behalf of them, may I tell my hon. Friend the Minister that we are putting before the House the principle of privacy protection. We do not hold that our drafting is perfect. Therefore, should the Government come forward with amendments, we as sponsors will be thoroughly co-operative.
I make a special menion of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). His knowledge has been of great help to me. Although he is not a barrister, I truly feel that he is my hon. and learned Friend.
In describing the concept of privacy—the right to be let alone—I can do no better than qote from the Justice report of 1970, which states:To preserve his sense of identity and the integrity of his personality, to work out his personal relationships and find his way to his own salvation, each human being needs to be able to limit the area of his intercourse with others … Above all, we need to be able to keep to ourselves, if we want to, those thoughts and feelings, beliefs and doubts, hopes, plans, fears and fantasies, which we call 'private' precisely because"—when we wish to—we wish to be able to choose freely with whom, and to what extent, we are willing to share them … The problem, therefore, is one of balancing the individual's need for privacy against the legitimate needs of the community".
1300 I re-emphasise to right hon. and hon. Members that we must always distinguish between the public interest and the interests of the public, which are often different and sometimes even conflicting.
Past Governments have ensured that protection exists for the individual in respect of his physical person, his personal reputation and his personal property, including intellectual property. However, no effective legal protection of personal privacy exists under English law. There is a serious gap in our law. It is clear from Gallup polls that about 70 per cent. of the public are both disgusted by and concerned about the increasing exploitation of breaches of privacy for financial gain. That public concern is reflected in Parliament, where in the last Session about 60 per cent. of Back Benchers signed early-day motions supporting the right to privacy.
Today our lives are lived in a more and more congested style. In a world of increasingly sophisticated eavesdropping devices and of instant global communication, the need for legal privacy protection is increasing fast. In other countries, including the United States, Germany, Holland, Italy and France, privacy laws have worked for decades and yet there is no evidence that the freedom of speech has suffered one jot. In France, for example, the equivalent of Private Eye is the magazine Le Canard and it thrives despite the French privacy laws. In the United Stales, privacy laws exist despite the fact that the first amendment to the United States constitution is the protection of free speech and the freedom of the press. The American equivalents of Private Eye, however, Spy and Village Voice, continue to thrive.
Why is it that the law in this country authorises no protection for individual privacy? Why are we so far behind? Why has not something been done already? In this respect it is important to note that the Government have already signed international human rights conventions that enshrine the right to privacy as a basic human right. Obviously, by signing international conventions to this effect, the British Government agree in principle to that right. Therefore, why do we not have laws in common with other countries?
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, North)
My hon. Friend referred to an international convention, the European convention on human rights, and I believe that he meant article 8. Will he reflect on the fact that article 10 provides for freedom of information and freedom to disseminate information?
§ Mr. Browne
My hon. Friend raises a valid issue, which is at the crux of the debate: where should the balance be struck? At the moment everything is wide open and there is no balance. The aim of the Bill is to strike a balance that protects the individual citizen's privacy.
Why do we not have laws similar to those in other countries to protect privacy within the United Kingdom? As the learned Lord Ross said in his minority report from the 1972 Younger committee, to continue without such laws is,At least to some extent, a sham.He also said:The law in the United Kingdom should now be brought into line with these important declarations.That was in 1972, 17 years ago.
In today's world, I firmly believe that the protection of privacy is a fundamental human right, along with freedom of speech, of movement and of free association. Surely all 1301 men and women in our land believe that their home is their castle in which their private lives should be protected and that preserving privacy is in the public interest. My sponsors and I hope that the Bill will put water in the moat of everyone's castle.
I have had an explanatory memorandum to the Bill printed and, therefore, I shall not waste the time of the House by describing each clause in detail. I will, of course, try to answer any questions that may arise. Basically, the Bill recognises two competing interests—freedom of information, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), and the protection of individual privacy. The Bill seeks to confer remedies for the public misuse of private information rather than a general right for the protection of privacy.
Essentially the Bill is based on international human rights obligations already accepted by the Crown. Clause 1 creates the statutory tort of breach of privacy. It allows the plaintiff to have someone else act for him under power of attorney if, for instance, the plaintiff is abroad and wants an injunction. It defines the persons who may be liable for committing a breach of privacy.
Clause 2(1) is most important as it balances the competing interests of freedom of information with the protection of the individual's privacy. It includes a hurdle or test for the plaintiff. That has been specifically included to ensure that the press is not shackled. Clause 2(2) gives guidance to the court on balancing the competing interests. Clause 2(2)(a) provides an extension of the public interest to include public benefit. I have included that so that the narrow definition of public interest, which might only include misconduct and criminal activity, is extended to include other things that may be of benefit for the public to know.
Clause 3 provides the other defences in addition to that of public interest. Clause 4 outlines the remedies that a court may award. It also gives guidelines to a court on assessing damages. Clause 5 states the period of limitation. Clause 6 ensures that the court will not award double damages. Clause 7 identifies the areas of a person's life that most reasonable people would regard as private and that are protected by virtue of the Crown's international human rights obligations. They are personal communications, the home, personal relationships, personal health, personal behaviour and personal financial affairs. It also defines personal and public use of dissemination by means of printed matter or broadcast material. That is important as it ensures that conversations, even gossipy conversations, are not killed by the Bill, which does not set out to be the kill-joy of normal village tittle-tattle.
Clause 8 allows the Bill to operate in Scotland. Clause 9 ensures that no actions can be brought on matters arising before the Bill comes into effect. Clause 10 binds the Crown, defines the short title of the Bill and provides for it to come into force on 1 January 1990.
In general, the Bill calls for no procedural changes. It preserves the principles of open justice, of damage relative to harm proved, the avoidance of double damages and the principle of mitigation. It does not include, however, provision for legal aid. Critics of the Bill argue that the absence of legal aid means that only the rich can benefit from the Bill's protection. Although I support legal aid, its inclusion in the Bill would have incurred the immediate 1302 hostility of the Government. It would have provided officials with easy ammunition with which to attack the Bill. Furthermore, those who feel strongly that legal aid should have been included will surely accept that the key issue is the principle of legal privacy protection. If such protection is needed, it should not be overruled simply because the Government do not think it is right to provide legal aid.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although the absence of a legal aid provision is a disappointment, it will be possible to bring an action in the local county court and that it is now possible to obtain guidance easily on how to bring such actions in person? Therefore, there should be ready redress in a local court.
§ Mr. Browne
I am glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised that point because he anticipates my next statement.
Critics have said that the Bill is for the rich only, but I must drive home the fact that the Bill is designed for the ordinary man and woman in the street. What the hon. and learned Gentleman says is perfectly correct, and after the Lord Chancellor's review a person will be able to take a case to the county court for about £20. That means that there will be wide access to the courts for everyone, including those on low incomes.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
Did my hon. Friend seek the advice of the eminent lawyers he mentioned on the subject of legal aid, because I am not sure that what he is saying is right? In the absence of any comment about legal aid, I understand that the normal rules for civil legal aid would apply to the Bill. That being so, has my hon. Friend any idea of what the implications for the costs to the legal aid fund would be?
§ Mr. Browne
That is a deep, legal question. As I understand it, without provision for legal aid, legal aid would not apply, just as it does not apply now for cases brought under the defamation laws. I shall try to confirm that during the course of the debate.
The subject of financial accessibility to justice faces our entire legal system and it is far beyond the scope of the Bill. I should re-emphasise, however, that, unlike libel plaintiffs, plaintiffs under the Bill can bring their cases before the county courts, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) has said. Following the Lord Chancellor's review, access to the county courts will be much cheaper than it is even today. Therefore, the Bill will greatly improve accessibility for the less well off in comparison to access currently afforded in civil torts such as those of defamation.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), whom I much admire and who is one of my political heroes, wrote an article which appeared in The Evening Standard last night which raised that exact point. It is unfortunate that he is not here today because I do not like to talk about hon. Members when they are absent from the Chamber. My right hon. Friend said:Few such ordinary people would be protected by Mr. Browne's Bill, any more than they are protected by the law of libel.That is utterly incorrect. He also said:Mr. Browne's Bill is bound to inhibit the freedom of the Press to do its proper job.I dispute that and hope to illustrate later why that view is 1303 wrong. The less well off will have much better legal access under the Bill than under the present laws of tort, such as libel.
The Bill has also been criticised for not including a provision for a jury. Naturally, I support jury trials, and I should willingly accept amendments that allowed either side to demand trial by jury, as in libel cases. In fact, I excluded juries simply to protect the press from extortionate and punitive damage payments. It is, perhaps, worth noting that in the case of South Hetton Coalfield v. North Eastern News in 1894, the judge ruled specifically that the determination of public interest was a matter of law for the judge. Hence the concept of a judge determining what is in the public interest or benefit has been recognised as a matter of law for 100 years or more. The Press has not felt the need to complain until now.
The Bill has been criticised for its provisions about injunctions. Basically, there is no change in the Bill in the method and manner in which injunctions are applied for and granted. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, Parliament's wish to see privacy protected is not new. Bills have been introduced by the late Lord Mancroft in 1961, Alexander Lyon in 1967, Brian Walden in 1969 and, most recently, by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. This Bill draws upon their experiences, and I salute and thank all those who have gone before. Despite the mounting evidence of popular demand for protection of privacy, reflected by the presentation of no fewer than four Bills, past Governments have avoided the issue. Whether the fear of media moguls or the fear of an anti-media image has played a part, I know not, but I do know that nothing effective has been done to protect the privacy of the individual citizen. The moats around the castle homes of England are dry and individual privacy is invaded, at profit, with impunity.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the benefits of the Bill should be extended to Northern Ireland? Could he arrange that?
§ Mr. Browne
I believe that the benefits should be extended to the whole of the United Kingdom, and I and my sponsors would agree to extend it to Northern Ireland if amendments were tabled to that effect in Committee.
The smokescreen put up by past Governments has followed a pattern. First, such a Bill would be unworkable, despite the fact that privacy laws have worked, and worked successfully, without muzzling the press in other countries for decades. Furthermore, the tort of privacy is very similar to the tort of libel, which has worked well in our country for a century or more. The second reason given was that there are competing interests, so self-regulation is best. But self-regulation tends to cater for only one side of the balance of interests and, as a principle, the Government themselves, in many areas, no longer tolerate self-regulation in such places as the stock exchange, where regulations are now fully backed by statute law.
The third reason given by past Governments was that the key definitions of privacy and public interest are too difficult. We as sponsors maintain that such definitions may be difficult, but they are definitely not impossible. We already live and work with definitions of other equally difficult legal concepts such as nuisance, negligence, obscenity, trespass, misrepresentation and contempt. For the past 36 years, cases of breach of privacy have been 1304 decided by the Press Council. In each case, individual members of the council have had to decide according to their own individual view of privacy and public interest. The result? It has been arbitrary definitions with no restitution for the wronged. Meanwhile, breaches of privacy have become even more outrageous.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the Press Council. At the moment, if a complaint goes to the Press Council, one waives one's right to seek any other recourse. It would seem that, under clause 6, one could take a complaint about privacy to the Press Council and then have the right to go to court to seek the damages that the Press Council was unable to award. Is that so?
§ Mr. Browne
That is so; and, of course, it is so under the laws of libel today. That is why the Press Council has instituted the waiver, which I find distasteful. I do not see why any citizen should waive his legal right to appeal to a tribunal. None the less, that may be a matter that can be dealt with in Committee. The provisions of the Bill are exactly the same as the laws on defamation.
Let us now look briefly at the key definitions of privacy and public interest. The Government have already signed international human rights conventions enshrining personal privacy as a fundamental human right. My definitions are based on those very same conventions, as identified in clause 7. Surely any reasonable person, given the facts, will have a clear idea whether privacy has been breached. People keep asking about uncertain cases, but they are provided for in the Bill. The Bill directs that if there is uncertainty, the decision must be made in favour of publication. If my critics are correct and uncertainty does exist or does enter the mind of the court, publication will take place.
The concept of public interest or benefit is not new in English law. Section 6 of Lord Campbell's Libel Act of 1843 refers to public benefit. Section 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 refers to public concern and public benefit, as does section of the Defamation Act 1952. Section 3 of the Theatres Act 1968 refers to the public good. Indeed, a key in the defence of fair comment in our present libel laws is the ability to show public interest. Ample precedents for public interest already exist and are practised constantly in English law.
Despite those legal precedents, some Government officials may still feel that legislation would be too difficult. Here I shall quote the views of two eminent barristers. The noble and learned Lord Ross, in his minority report to the Younger committee, said:uncertainties in the law are not unusual. To decline to alter the law because it would be difficult to define the new law is a doctrine of despair which could be applied to almost any proposed legal reform.The noble and learned Lord Alexander, perhaps the most eminent practising barrister in the land, said in an article in The Daily Telegraph on 21 January 1989:This Bill may well be capable of improvement, or may need some amendment; but the principles it seeks to protect should now become part of our law.If the Government have any ideas for improving the definition in the Bill, we as sponsors will co-operate fully.
I now turn to the press, which will be much affected by the Bill and which is, quite rightly, concerned. A free press is the key to the sustenance of a free democracy. However, 1305 within that free democracy people as individuals must also be free to speak, to move and to associate, and free to enjoy the dignity of privacy.
§ Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)
Would the Bill give some protection to members of the royal family who suffer from prying journalists and photographers in their private lives?
§ Mr. Browne
My hon. Friend raises an important subject. As I have said, everyone must be equally subject to the law and equally protected by it. Plainly, that includes the royal family. But whether people wish to exercise the remedies by going to court would be up to individuals.
In any civilised country the right to publish private information should prevail only where publication could be shown to be in the public interest. In that respect I shall now turn to the Younger committee. The Bills of the 1960s caused the then Governments to institute royal commissions, including the Younger committee, which reported in 1972. This was an important report and resulted in a significant minority report by Mr., now Lord, Ross. The Younger committee concluded that, first, there was no evidence of serious infringement of privacy. Secondly, it concluded that reliance could be placed on self-regulation and the professional ethics of the potential infringers of privacy backed by the Press Council remedy. The third recommendation was that a reformed law on breach of confidence would fill any of the remaining gaps. Today those findings appear naive.
I suspect that few people would think that the problem of privacy invasion was not serious. Events of the past decade or so have been extremely serious, and clearly something has to be done. The people of our country are looking to the Government for help in the formation of legal protection. In this respect it is clear from history that we cannot rely upon self-restraint by the media; the competitive forces are far too great. A line needs to be drawn.
I understand that some people, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford, are minded to give the Press Council another chance under its new chairman, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, QC. Another chance after 36 years on trial and three royal commissions? My view is that the Press Council, which issued its own declaration in 1976, has tried hard but, to say the least, has been ineffective. Even The Observer of 22 January said in an editorial about the Press Council:The present set-up is well-meaning, amateurish and ineffectual.The Press Council is not seen to act on behalf of the public. It is an attempt at self-regulation that has failed over the past 36 years, not because of any lack of will or ability on the part of its individual members, but because Parliament has given it no definitions of privacy or public interest. We have given it no guidelines and no teeth so that there is no restitution for the wronged.
Some people argue that the Press Council should be given teeth, but in today's world that means damages of hundreds of thousands of pounds. If the Press Council were given teeth, the press would rightly demand that evidence should be given on oath instead of upon written deposition, and that professional representation by barristers should be allowed. If the Government were to 1306 accept that, it would effectively turn the tribunal of the Press Council into a court. Why not accept the demand for legislation now?
I have interviewed the past chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen, and I am sure that he supports the Bill. He is on record as saying that he is sick at heart from revelations exposing people to hurt. I also believe that the new chairman of the Press Council, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, would find the Bill very acceptable. Despite this serious situation, no Government have yet taken action. Even the Bill has been rubbished as woolly. In that respect I should again like to draw the House's attention to Lord Alexander's article of 21 January. He says:The strongest criticism of any suggested law of privacy has invariably been that such a law would be too vague and leave too much to the discretion of the judges. I have always thought that this view underestimates the ability of the common law to develop both purposely and with common sense. The law of confidence, evolved to cover situations as different as commercial secrets and information held by members of the security services, is judge-made law. I hope the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers will not consider, as it has been reported they might, that such a law would be unworkable. We can trust to the vitality of the development of the common law, and to a sensible balance maintained by the judges. If Mr. Browne's Bill needs clarification, it should be amended, not killed".In relation to the rubbishing in certain sections of the media, I shall turn again to the minority report of Lord Ross in 1972. In that report he says:The truth is that the press have always fought a strong, rearguard action when it has been suggested that the press acts unfairly towards private individuals. In seeking quite legitimately to protect what they see to be their best interests, the press have always exaggerated the dangers of muzzling the press".This is happening today, and I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford is wrong to give it so much credence.
The impression given in some sections of the media is that news gathering would be hampered by the Bill. Unlike its predecessors, the Bill makes no attempt whatever to stop sound investigative journalism, which can occasionally lead to the exposure of criminal activity.
§ Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)
My hon. Friend makes an important point when he says that under the terms of his Bill honourable news gathering and investigative journalism can continue. My hon. Friend has been long on principles and short on specific examples. I should like to put a specific example to him and ask him how his Bill deals with it.
Immediately after recent major disasters, such as those at Hungerford and Lockerbie and the one that greatly concerned my constituents, the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, the tabloid press sent reporters to do truly outrageous things to people. For example, in the case of my constituent, Captain David Lewry, the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise, tabloid reporters smashed down the walls of his intensive care unit, invaded his home, put microphones in his car and treated that honourable man to a degree of invasion of privacy that was disgusting and vicious by any standards. When my hon. Friend comes to the weighing of public interests versus rights of privacy, will he be able to tell us that the Bill will stop such abuses in such future disasters?
§ Mr. Browne
I agree with my hon. Friend's every word. I must explain that I have been short on examples because 1307 I am trying to limit my speech to give other hon. Members the chance to give examples. The examples of invasion that my hon. Friend quotes would not be directly stopped by the Bill. However, it would stop them indirectly because it would not pay television or broadcasting companies or the press to make intrusive interviews of the type that my hon. Friend quoted of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise because they could not publish them afterwards. The Bill gets at this by stopping the publication of private information rather than stopping the gathering of information, which may uncover crime. Technology may well eventually outstrip anything that we could write into what would become an even more complex Bill.
As I say, rather than concentrating on stopping investigation, the Bill stops the illegitimate publication of private information. Let us remember that privacy laws in other countries have not even hampered, let alone muzzled, the press. The Bill has been especially tailored to meet the legitimate interests of the press. Some people even say that it is too biased towards the press.
In conclusion, I should like briefly to mention some of the support that I have received, most interestingly, from within the media. Indeed, I have been told privately by a number of journalists, both from the press and broadcasting, that they will be delighted to see this Bill become law. One tabloid journalist said to me—
§ Mr. Browne
The hon. Gentleman anticipates my fear. The tabloid journalist said:You will be amazed at the support for your Bill even from my paper. After all, we are human. We have children and families. We do not like to carry out some of the intrusive operations that we are given by our editors. We are professionally embarrassed. However, if we fail to get the story"—such as the one quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken)—we get the sack. Even our editors are driven by the competition of free market forces in an ever-downward spiral.[Interruption.] Opposition Members may laugh. I must say that these words are a quotation. They are not even a quotation criticising the free market; they are criticising a free market with no bounds. That tabloid journalist went on to say:Many of us would welcome it if someone drew the line.In other words, it is like drawing the boundary lines of a football game—free game and equal competition, but within the limits.
My plea to my right hon. Friends in Government, and especially in the Home Office, is to see this Bill as putting forward a principle—that is, the legal protection of the privacy of every man, woman and child in our country. Do the Government agree or not agree that individuals should have this right, a right that already exists in most civilised countries where water now fills the moat of every citizen's home or castle? The eminent legal practitioners whom I have consulted have all agreed that this Bill is long overdue and thoroughly workable in our courts that are familiar with dealing with civil wrongs. The key issue is whether an individual citizen should have any legal right to privacy.
I conclude with two quotations, first, from the noble and learned Lord Denning who, as Master of the Rolls, in the 1961 debate on Lord Mancroft's Bill, said 1308if the law does not give the right of privacy, the sooner this Bill gives it the better".—[0fficial Report, House of Lords, 13 March 1961; Vol. 229, c. 640.]Secondly, I quote again from Lord Alexander, QC, who said:This Bill may well be capable of improvement or may need some amendment but the principles it seeks to protect should now become part of our law.Preserving privacy is in the public interest. In that spirit, I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
It will be evident to the House that many hon. Members wish to speak in this debate, so I hope that speeches will not be too long.
§ Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)
I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), first, on the principle that he is seeking to espouse in the Bill and, secondly, on his speech, which set it out most cogently and will enable me and other hon. Members speaking in support of the Bill to be brief. It is important that we should hear a wide range of views and I believe that we shall hear substantial support for the Bill from all parties.
The Bill seeks to incorporate for the first time a positive and important right into the law of the United Kingdom. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs) that that should mean the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The right that the Bill seeks to incorporate into British law is the right of privacy. There is no such right in any substantive sense in British law at present. As a result of the absence of such a right, we should not mince our words about what the press sometimes does. The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) gave a striking example of the way in which the press can misbehave when he spoke of what they did to the life of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise.
However, every day, not only in respect of people who have attracted public attention, such as Captain Lewry, but in respect of ordinary citizens who do not have the defence of a big corporation around them, or of wealth, we read in some newspapers of deliberately dredged smut that has no connection with the public interest whatsoever. A minority of newspapers produce that smut, but it is a majority of the copy going out over the newsagents' counters that contains that dreadful material. Day after day, local councillors, people who have had road accidents, Members of Parliament, doctors and nurses, but rarely journalists—I wonder what they would think if we were to say, on the Floor of the House with the protection of parliamentary privilege, what we know about some of them—are subjected to horrendous and often untruthful newspaper articles about their private lives.
The bench mark of a free press is that it acts in the public interest. A free press must be able to act in the public interest, even if that interest is contrary to the views of the Government and of very powerful people in the land, including the proprietors of those newspapers. However, it is not for the press to tell us by what standard the public interest is to be judged. It ill-behoves the press, and there is no intellectual or logical justification for it, to deny Parliament and the courts the right to set what is a reasonable standard for the public interest.
The Bill, of which I am proud to be a sponsor, gives the courts the opportunity at last to decide where the line between public interest and sheer prurience lies. Unfortunately, there is at the moment an industry founded 1309 on prurience. Hundreds of journalists could do—and most would like to do—a much more useful job, but are told by their proprietors to go snoop and pry. They will lose their jobs if they refuse. There is no public interest whatsoever in that sort of invasion of privacy, except of course, the public interest in bringing it to an end.
The Bill sets out a number of categories of human life and behaviour which should surely be protected from the type of journalism that has become prevalent in the past few years. Clause 7 sets out the six categories.
Why should the press be able to steal and then publish the private letters of individuals? Surely personal communications, including telephone calls, should be protected. It is a fact beyond denial that the press intercept people's telephones, put listening bugs on their windows, and use what they hear to produce newspaper stories. It is beyond doubt that people's homes, too, should be protected. What legitimate interest have the press in their contents and, most particularly, in people's very private belongings and interests?
If a person has a row with his wife, it should not be trailed across a newspaper—but it is at the whim of an editor. I applaud the Bill for seeking to protect personal relationships. If someone in public life has a sexual orientation that does not accord with the majority view, should not that information be protected, unless it affects his performance and integrity in a public office? What possible public interest can there be in it, except merely that which some find enjoyable—the reading of a bit of smut about a person of note?
If an individual is suffering from a serious illness such as AIDS or any other form of virus, surely he is entitled to the protection of the law, so that unless he is willing to have that information published, the press should not be entitled to publish it willy-nilly. The Bill provides for anyone who wishes to waive his rights. If an individual wishes to take money from a newspaper to have his private affairs trailed across page 3 of the Sun or page 4 of the News of the World, that is a matter for him. He can take the money and the paper is free to publish. But the right to retain privacy should be protected.
The final category that the Bill seeks to protect is personal financial affairs. There are people in public life who are very rich, and there are people in public life who are much poorer than the public might ever imagine.
§ Mr. Carlile
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) puts himself in the latter category.
Some right hon. and hon. Members might have overdrafts, while others might have money in the bank. What business is it of the press into which of those categories a right hon. or hon. Member falls, unless he chooses to waive his right of privacy? The exception is where a right hon. or hon. Member's financial affairs are a matter of genuine public interest, by standards generous to the press and set out in clauses 2 and 3.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
Bearing in mind that many, if not all, journalists are elastic with their expenses claims—it is a profession well known for that practice— 1310 does the hon. and learned Gentleman recall any newspaper publishing a story about journalists claiming exaggerated expenses, or any legal action being taken against them?
§ Mr. Carlile
I cannot recall a single story of that kind being published, though right hon. and hon. Members are peculiarly prone to receiving publicity about whether they have paid even small bills. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point.
If the Bill, duly amended, becomes law, properly trained journalists will start doing the job they were trained to do. That job is to investigate, present news, and write stories that are of genuine public interest. At present, I find certain newspapers easy to read, because there is practically nothing in them to read. I also find them difficult to read because they contain so much that is offensive. If the Bill becomes law, newspapers will have to change the way in which their contents are written. I look forward to reading the Sun when it has some news on its pages. I look forward to reading the News of the World when its editor has to ensure that its contents are true, and are in accordance with the Bill's provisions.
I hope that the House will have the courage to face up to the howling of the press, and to ensure that the right of privacy is enshrined in our law.
§ Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)
How nice it is to see the House of Commons so full on a Friday, and how much nicer to see so many members of the press perched in the Press Gallery. I am even told that sketch writers—those aristocrats of my profession—have forgone the delights of spending the weekend in great houses to continue their duties here today.
The British tabloid newspaper is as British as a football hooligan, and just as welcome. The leaders of the pack are Rupert Murdoch's the Sun and News of the World, with The Star bringing up the rear. In 1939, I was evacuated to my uncle's cottage in darkest Shropshire, because we believed that the Luftwaffe had no idea where Craiven Arms was. The cottage was all lit by oil lamps, and it had a lavatory at the bottom of the garden. Inside the loo, the News of the World was cut into six-inch squares, hanging from a piece of string. All those sad, fallen vicars. Since then, due to increased living standards—due in part to the combination of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer—I no longer make use of the News of the World in quite the same way.
I suppose that the Sun is the most successful and the least attractive British newspaper. It is not so much a newspaper, more an entertainment sheet. Its staff—and I have written a column for the Sun in the past—refer to it as "the comic". The truth is that as standards fall, circulation figures rise. Such newspapers lie in search of profit. Oscar Wilde observed:In the old days, men had the rack, now they have the press.The rackmaster is Mr. Rupert Murdoch, who is Australia's revenge for Arthur Phillip, captain of HMS Sirius. Mr. Murdoch's republican sympathies have nothing to do with his recently acquired American nationality. "Les Patterson" may have accepted a knighthood, but not Mr. Murdoch.
The Sun never neglects the royal family, but sucks it as if it were an orange. It treats the royals as if they were a soap opera, but with the difference that the Sun writes the 1311 script. Its heroes and villains are the heroes and villains of its choosing. It has already scored a double first—an injunction secured by lawyers acting for the Queen to stop publication of a footman's memoirs, and the legal action taken last October after it published a stolen picture of members of the royal family. That theft cost the newspaper £100,000. Elton John, on the other hand, has cost it £1 million.
In the Sun, the Prince of Wales is shown as a wimp, his wife as "fun-loving" and their marriage as a subject of ceaseless speculation. The UK Press Gazette, a trade newspaper, argued in an editorial last year:the truth is an alien quality to most tabloid Royal reporting. Most stories have only the faintest basis of fact, and the pictures to go with them are obtained by the sort of invasion of privacy that no Fleet Street editor would tolerate if inflicted upon his own family".Here comes the rub. It can be argued that celebrities such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) are fair game, although it is not so argued by me. But what about the families of public people?
Last year the News of the World, under the editorship of a Wendy Henry—the first lady of Fleet Street—carried as a centre-page spread the sad story of the love affair of the daughter of a Member of the House. The boyfriend in question had flogged the story of the affair to Ms. Henry, who published it—not because the love affair was in any way different from a thousand others, but because of the girl's father. The spread was illustrated with pictures of the Member and his wife. Ms. Henry was later sacked, although whether it was for being vile or not being vile enough was never made clear.
Leslie Grantham is the star of EastEnders—"Dirty Den". His father, Wally Grantham, is a Conservative councillor in Rushmoor in my constituency. The Granthams' life has been made a misery by the attentions of Sun reporters in particular, who have staked out their house, cultivated their neighbours and monopolised their telephones. When he heard about today's debate Mr. Grantham rang to urge me to vote for the Bill, which I shall.
In the tabloid newspapers one apology is very much like another. It is enough to say that the Sun easily headed the complaints league last year, with 15 complaints to the Press Council upheld and one partly upheld. I doubt that Rupert Murdoch or his editor Kelvin MacKenzie much care. The 16 rebukes are probably painted on MacKenzie's fuselage like so many RAF roundels on an ME 109.
In a society that seems increasingly divided between yobs and yuppies, it is easy to condemn the Sun and its kind, and its defenders may accuse me of hypocrisy or pomposity. Yet the success of newspapers like the Sun certainly raises some hard questions. Does MacKenzie really do no more than hold a glass to the face of his readers? Does the Sun lead, or does it simply follow?
Mike Molloy, the editorial director of the Daily Mirror, says that the Sun was the first paper to spot the Right-wing yob emerging. Professor John Vincent of Bristol, on the other hand—he writes a column not only for The Times but for the Sun, and in the same week—says that the Sun works on the frontiers of literacy. Will Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie ever be knighted, as was his predecessor Sir "Larry" Lamb? The answer must surely be "over the Queen's dead body".
The real villains of the piece are the newspaper proprietors. In the past the press lords were more 1312 circumspect. They sought the good opinions of their peers, and many of them wanted to sit in the other place. Today they suffer from no such inhibitions. They change their nationality as often as they change their shirts.
§ Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South)
I hesitate to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who put so clearly points that I, too, wish to make, but I should like to make some further comments.
I have looked carefully at what the press has said about the Bill. Discussing press freedom, Hugo Young observes in The Guardian that the voyeurism that appears in the Sun and other tabloids has nothing to do with the interests of the quality newspapers. The British press now finds itself in a crisis of legitimacy, so relentlessly do some of its members pursue people in their private lives.
There is a delicate balance between investigative journalism and rights of privacy, and I do not think that the Bill deals sufficiently with that balance. There are dangers in the Bill, and I have many reservations about it. The time has come, however, when the House must address itself to how some members of the press now operate, and to whether their operations are legitimate.
I hesitate to use as an example something that happened to me, but I feel that we must be forthright and tell the perpetrators of these appalling stories that whatever our walk of life—whether we are Members of Parliament, prominent in society through trade union activities, or the families of the victims of tragedies—we have a right to strike back. My patience is exhausted by journalists who tell me that they have codes of conduct and that the press must keep itself in order; it is patently failing to do so. We have been very patient with those members of the press, but if they cannot police themselves through professional standards, that policing must be done through legislation.
I have taken advice on what happened to me, and I have been told that the journalists involved were in contempt of the House. I could have taken the matter to the Committee of Privileges, but, because that option would afford me a protection not available to ordinary members of the public, I decided not to take it.
The story goes like this. Hon. Members may remember that a week ago yesterday I put a question to the Prime Minister on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). Within hours journalists were at my home in Bristol—none of them spoke to me here—harassing my friends and family. They did not have legitimate queries about what they thought of my question; they were looking for possible sordid or unsavoury episodes in my past, or indeed my present, that they could plaster across their newspapers, simply because they did not like the question that I had put in the House.
As if that were not bad enough, the next day two Sun reporters hot-footed it down to Bristol and encamped themselves outside my ex-husband's house. Although we have been separated for six years, he lives very near to me. The journalists visited community projects that my husband and I had been involved in; they went to his place of work; they sat outside his house from early in the morning until 8.40 pm on Friday night. Neighbours were suspicious about those two people sitting outside the house, so they rang the police. The police later told them that they had been informed that two reporters from the 1313 Sun were extremely anxious to speak to Mr. Primarolo about Mrs. Primarolo. They wanted to dredge up anything that could be used to discredit me, because they did not like the question that had been asked in the House.
My ex-husband got in and out of his house for the entire day over the back garden fence. All our friends had to be warned. They were very upset about the possibility of saying a word out of place which would then be blazoned across the newspaper as an attack on me. My ex-husband spent Friday night with friends.
I have an 11-year-old son. We had to make arrangements to get him out of school by the back door, because we know the depths to which that newspaper will sink. The last thing I wanted was to see a photograph of my son set against an unpleasant, insinuating article in that newspaper. My son was very upset the next day. We had to discuss in some depth whether it is correct for newspapers to be able to do that.
Apart from that unpleasant article that appeared on the Friday, there were no further reports about me in the press, and none appeared in the Sun, but the point is that I should never have been subjected to that treatment. My family, friends and associates should not have been subjected to it either simply because their political complexion had led journalists to be angry with me for the effrontery of asking the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley on the Floor of the House.
It has been suggested to me that a person holding office in this House under this Government spoke to members of the press lobby and helped them along with their story. He believed that they were sympathetic to the Government, so he gave them information that included completely unfounded allegations and lies about me, which resulted in the harassment of people who are dear and close to me. We are discussing a much wider subject than just whether cases can be taken to the courts when the press have invaded our privacy.
I accept entirely that journalists have a right to investigate hon. Members. We are public figures. There are things that it is legitimate for journalists to investigate, but I do not accept that they are entitled to muck-rake, to fabricate, to spread lies about us and then say that we have recourse to the courts. They should not be doing it in the first place. I do not want to have to go to court to obtain damages afterwards; I do not want them to do it in the first place, because there is always somebody, somewhere, who says, "There is no smoke without fire."
I intend to quote what was written in The Independent by Peter Tatchell about the many, many lies that were spread about him. He said:The after effect is that my income, political future and physical safety remain in jeopardy six years later. For the journalists who wrote the stories I am now old news and they have largely forgotten me: the bigots whose prejudices they aroused have not.It is a question of rights and responsibilities. Journalists have rights to investigate and rights to freedom, but those rights have to be balanced by responsibilities because of the consequences of their actions for many other people. I do not believe that they have proved that they respect those responsibilities. The problem has grown considerably worse since the Younger committee reported. We intend to use the Bill, despite our reservations, as a vehicle for debate on this subject.
1314 The sponsors of the Bill list a number of areas in clause 7 that they consider to be private. I do not agree about all those areas. As an example, I refer to personal financial affairs. When the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) moved the Second Reading he did not make clear exactly what he meant. If I had massive investments in French water companies—the French water companies that are sniffing around Wessex Water and all the other water authorities in the run up to privatisation—if I were passionately keen, which I am not, on voting for water privatisation and if I therefore intended to go around the country advocating the benefits of water privatisation, it would be wholly legitimate for the press to point out that I had invested money in French water companies and that I stood to make personal gain from privatisation.
§ Mr. John Browne
That is protected precisely in the Bill and it would be a classic case of public interest.
§ Ms. Primarolo
I see the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I still do not think that that is made clear enough. It is not good enough for us just to claim recourse to the courts or to say that it is in the public interest, because somebody would challenge it. It could be argued out in court by the person who felt that it was not a legitimate public interest or who could claim that the media had got hold of the information by devious methods. The matter could get as far as the courts. The media would have to defend themselves for taking that action. I do not believe that that should be necessary. The point needs to be made clearer.
§ Mr. John Browne
The basic point is clear. There would be a defence of public interest. If there were any doubt in the mind of the court about the validity of the case for privacy versus public interest, the court would decide in favour of publication. The case that the hon. Lady has cited is a clear case of public interest. I hope that the hon. Lady will concentrate on the fact that the Bill is not designed to prevent investigation. The question is what one does with the information when one has obtained it.
§ Ms. Primarolo
This debate should be conducted in Committee. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not engage in it now. I do not agree with him. The Bill does not make it clear and the matter needs to be looked into.
The hon. Member for Winchester spoke on television this morning. It is interesting to note that he cited a case that suggested that standards were becoming more flexible. He referred to a woman who had had an abortion and who then could not make up her mind whether she was for or against abortion. The hon. Gentleman felt that that was a legitimate matter to investigate and to comment on. I disagree with him, but such examples will have to be discussed in Committee.
The House should give the Bill a Second Reading so that these issues can be thrashed out in Committee. If we are still not satisfied with the Bill when it is reported to the House, we can vote it down. However, the time has come when we have to consider what is the relationship of journalists to our private lives and to those of other people. Legal aid will have to be provided. If the right to privacy is a right at all, it must be a right for everybody. It is not a right that one should be able to enjoy just because one can afford to go to court.
The Bill should not enable solicitors to make lots of money, or people to obtain huge damages by going to 1315 court. Its purpose ought to be a return to a dialogue with journalists about what is and what is not legitimate journalism, so that stories of the kind I have mentioned do not appear. Then we can get back to normal, when the press is respected, and clearer lines have been drawn to define the rights of privacy of the public and hon. Members. The information that will be made available to the public will then be more specific and more relevant and will enable them to make fairer judgments about whether we are adequate to represent them and whether other people in institutions outside the House are fit to serve them.
For those reasons, I shall vote for the Bill today, but will reserve my position to see whether some matters are clarified in Committee. The press must realise that investigative journalism does not give journalists the right to destroy, to harass and to make people's lives a misery. A balance has to be struck and the Bill offers us the opportunity to do that.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on his luck in the ballot and particularly on the skill and determination with which he has pursued a matter with which I have been closely associated in the past few weeks.
The Bill concerns people from all walks of life. It is not only about those in the public eye and their families. Those of us who saw "Newsnight" saw what happened to the people of Lockerbie. We know what happened to the victim of the Ealing rape case, and we heard that when a young boy had been drowned, the following day his parents had to see, on the front page of a local newspaper, a photograph of his body being winched up to a helicopter. In Stoke on Trent recently there was the very sad case of a lady who, unfortunately and tragically, was dying and who wanted to raise money for an appeal. She approached a newspaper, hoping to make that appeal as successful as possible. I understand that she had made some reference to her husband's future life. The newspaper turned that story around in such a way as to imply that, as she was dying, she was choosing a future wife for her husband. Such practices are absolutely and wholly repellent and have to be stopped.
The Bill is being proposed at the right time; it is about time that something was done. It is 17 years since the Younger committee reported. It concluded:On balance, there is no need at present for a general law of privacy.It is pretty remarkable that, although the Younger committee had frequently been put forward as saying that there should be no general law on privacy, that is not what it said. Quite clearly, the members of the committee regarded their views as provisional, dependent upon whether their recommendations to beef up the Press Council produced proper results. We know the answer to that. There is absolutely no question but that the committee thought the Press Council would do the job. It is equally clear that it cannot.
By all accounts, the position has become much worse. I recently came across an interesting article in The Spectator written by Michael Trend, which stated:What have the press been making of this? Why have they largely failed to take up the debate on fundamental principles that has been offered to them?1316 He gave an interesting example:One tabloid leader writer (who, without seeing the humour in it, demanded that I respect his 'rights of privacy' by not naming him or his paper) told me that at the moment he was 'quite out of ideas'. He could think of no better line to argue against the Bill than that as it would be bad for his paper it must be had for its readers.Shortly before, in an article in The Daily Telegraph, Honor Tracy wrote an article about an anonymous tabloid editor who is quoted as saying:…if a story is good for circulation he will print it, as the publicity value outweighs even a heavy libel award against him.Private information is circulating under the cloak of privacy, revealing what is going on. My final quote is from the Second Reading debate on the Right of Privacy Bill—Brian Walden's Bill—on 23 January 1970. In an intervention, the then hon. Member for Buckingham, Mr. Robert Maxwell, said:Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the principle which he objects to the Bill introducing for the first time into our laws—namely, a right of privacy directly instead of, as it has been indirectly—would he not agree that the public are of the opinion that the right of privacy exists, but that the trouble is that that right has been given only so far in our legislation indirectly and that it is riddled with holes and abuses? What the Bill seeks to do is to put that right.—[Official Report, 23 January 1970; Vol. 794, c. 915.]I found that advice very instructive and extremely helpful.
There is no question there being no remedy to deal with the present invasions of privacy. We have already heard about the legal waiver and the difficulties experienced by people faced with rulings that are flouted. It has been said that the Bill would be a Bill only for the wealthy. I must say most emphatically that that is not true for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and other hon. Members have given today. The new arrangements for the courts will help to speed up justice and make it cheaper, but, as has been said, actions could be taken in the county court.
In addition, inevitably a deterrent value would emerge from these proposals, and would inevitably lead to adjustments in the mechanisms within each newspaper and to the mechanisms and administration of the Press Council. I do not believe that the Bill means that there need not be a Press Council. At the moment, the press has to live with the libel laws within which journalists can conduct investigations and ensure that ethical standards are maintained. The Bill seeks to ensure that people have direct personal rights that they can sustain. We have heard about the important contribution to that debate by Lord Alexander.
It is argued that only the wealthy will be able to benefit from the Bill, but that applies equally to libel, yet no one would say that there should be no libel laws merely on that account.
I turn now to the workability of the Bill, and in particular to the definitions within it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, the Bill has been vetted by some of the best legal brains in the country. All Bills contain definitions. Those definitions obviously have to be left to the courts as that is one of their main tasks. The term "defamation" and the expression "public interest" have already been defined in terms that include the need to ensure that justice is seen to be done. But if we consider another example that has been mentioned, private nuisance, there is a deep irony in the fact that, where property is affected, private nuisance can give rise to an action in tort. But that was for the protection of property.
1317 That is a throw-back from the 18th century when those principles were being developed. Is it not ironic that there can be an action in tort for that but not to protect human life?
The Press Council already defines public interest or public benefit, asa legitimate and proper public interest and not only a prurient and morbid curiosity.It defines the invasion of privacy as an unwarranted intrusion into private life. It happily applies its definitions, even if it cannot enforce them. Those who wish to do so can study the 1976 declaration of principles. The Press Council recognises the need for a remedy but cannot ensure one. In effect, it acts as a court, albeit an inadequate one. That directly affects people in their day-to-day lives.
If the Press Council alone cannot be entrusted with such an important task, what are the choices? One could substitute an ombudsman, as I have heard mentioned—I do not include the ombudsman whose appointment was announced a few days ago and who was described in The Spectator as "Quite a good joke." If we were to have an ombudsman, it would have to be on a statutory and enforceable basis. There would have to be an appeal system and the question would arise of to whom a complainant would appeal and who would appoint him. Would it become mixed up in political appointments? There would also be questions of evidence, the need for cross-examination and who would pay the fees. There would have to be open hearings and consistent precedents. The system would contain all the characteristics of a court but none of its advantages.
I have examined the arguments against former privacy Bills that have been debated in the House. The reasons contained in those debates are no more convincing than those being given today. The case for such legislation today is much stronger. Last year the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), and another Minister and, in 1983, the noble lord Lord Elton all issued warnings to the press. They said, "You must watch out. If you don't get your act together, legislation will be introduced to deal with the problem."
The Government recognise that there is a problem and that it cannot be shuffled under the carpet. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies, will he give us a constructive suggestion on which to work? Will he seriously consider the implications of rejecting this measure or, effectively, leading us into a cul-de-sac over the Bill?
There will always be a tomorrow and there is always a request for one more chance. However, these arguments have been continuing for 17 years to no effect and they will wash no longer. The insurance policy is void. We all remember the adage, "Publish and be damned." The problem now is that it is the victim who is damned and not he who publishes. Press freedom was nurtured and developed to protect individual freedom, in the House as well as outside. Now that press freedom is being used to deny individual freedom. All who cherish the freedom of the press should support the Bill, because it is a powerful means of righting wrong while restoring the press to its true role as a defender of liberty for all.
§ 11.3 am
§ Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)
It is with some trepidation that I rise to follow such a master parliamentary draftsman as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and to oppose a Bill over which he has had an influence. He is the man who reputedly has the roundel of the Single European Act on his fuselage.
I also have trepidation in opposing the Bill having just heard the fresh and livid speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) who, a matter of hours ago, was the object of the rampaging rat packs of the tabloid press. The story she told clearly angered the House and it is to the House's credit that it can get angry at such behaviour. However, when one hears of abuse, there is often more heat than light. All hon. Members would do well to remember that one cannot legislate on the basis of worst abuse. One should not legislate in the heat, no matter how long the heat has been in the baking. I accept that the problems have been getting worse for a long time. However, that is not the right atmosphere in which to legislate on such a serious matter.
There is no doubt that there is a major problem with the British press. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) in an elegant and witty speech said that it is a British problem. No other country, probably in the world but certainly in Europe, has a press that is so heavily bottom—loaded-if hon. Members will forgive the pun—where so many copies of the worst types of newspaper dominate the market. It is a British problem which has been with us for a long time and is getting worse.
That the media have a case to answer is denied by no one. Anyone who has scanned, as I have in the run-up to the debate, the press coverage of the Bill, especially in serious newspapers, can see that the press recognises that it has a case to answer. If one walks into a newsagents, especially on a Sunday, where the newspapers are spread across the counter, one can see at a glance that the media have a case to answer. If one studies the dramatic escalation in libel awards in the courts, one can see that juries—microcosms of the British public—think that the media have a case to answer. In 1986 the total amount of libel damages awards made in British courts was only £416,000, less than the total in one celebrated case in 1987 and only one third of the total awards made by juries in that year. That enormous escalation is a further example of the extent to which the media have a case to answer.
The spectacle—hilarious if it were not so revolting—of the Sun appointing its present managing editor as its ombudsman to deal fairly and squarely with complaints is enough to make a horse laugh. It is further evidence of the extent to which the media feel that their ground is shifting beneath them.
As the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) made clear, Gallup polls show that a majority of the public think that the press goes too far. That must be put into context—in this we are implicitly levelling criticisms at our constituents—because the same people who are polled by the Gallup pollsters and who express repugnance at the daily and weekly fare available in the newspapers, are buying those newspapers in ever increasing numbers. The Sun and the News of the World are the most successful newspapers in Europe, if not the world. Their sales are rising rather than falling, despite the considerable larger number of titles available now than a few years ago.
1319 Therefore, the Gallup poll results must be balanced with that. Whether the British public get the press they deserve is a moot point and we cannot hide from that.
There has undoubtedly been a collapse in press standards. Stories have been splashed on the front page and carried over to pages 7 and 8 that a few years ago might have been spiked by the editors. In a splendid speech, the hon. Member for Aldershot said that the Murdoch press bears much responsibility for this problem. The arrival of this least-welcome immigrant and his emergence as the most powerful press baron in the world has coincided with a spectacular but successful drop in standards as his profits have risen and media power expanded. I heard on the grapevine—I heard it again as I was entering the Chamber but I will not betray the confidence of who said it—that Mr. Murdoch has visited No. 10 to ask its inhabitant whether, even at this late stage, this Bill and the Right of Reply Bill can be stopped or blunted. We are unaware of the Prime Minister's response, but we know that Mr. Murdoch has some influence with No. 10. His newspapers are obsessive supporters of the Government, but it remains to be seen whether his lobbying will have any effect.
The concentration of press ownership in the hands of an American citizen, who was formerly an Australian citizen, is a matter of concern. Other newspapers watching his circulation figures zoom have been forced by the market forces so beloved by Conservative Members to follow him downwards. It would be welcome if my concern was shared by Conservative Members, but this subject will be dealt with on another occasion.
Because of my experiences, I have some trepidation in opposing the Bill, especially given the stories that we have heard this morning. As is well enough known, the hon. Member for Winchester and I have been the subject of the most rapacious interest by the yellow press and the tabloid rat pack. I should not like to enter into an argument with the hon. Gentleman, but I contend that I have probably suffered more than him or perhaps any other hon. Member from their interest.
It is worth running through a few of my experiences because they are germane to the debate. At a press conference a month or two after the election at which I was elected, which was called to deal with quite different matters, I was confronted by a journalist from a national newspaper who had documents that had been stolen from a friend of mine. He proceeded to ask me, in full view of the entire press corps, with cameras whirring and microphones recording, a series of the most personal questions. Crucially, they were questions to which the journalist already knew the answers, so there was no hiding place. I responded honestly if a little colourfully and the balloon went up. I may have been an hon. Member for a short time, but I have been in public life for most of my career in one form or another and cannot claim to be naive. Within hours, those honest if colourful remarks had been transformed in the editorial offices of Fleet street into a different story, which seemed—it was probably because there was little news around and the silly season was upon us—to be the most important of the day—my sex life of several years before becoming an hon. Member.
Within hours, all those connected with me from my elderly grandmother, my mother, my wife, her father, our neighbours and neighbours of friends of mine were besieged in their homes by many journalists. I was astonished that so many reporters were on the books of 1320 national newspapers. Outside my home, there were more than 20 journalists for 48 hours. They were burning night lights, had little primus stoves to cook their tea and camp beds on which to sleep, although they took it in turns to ensure that no one could sleep by ringing the doorbell, banging the door and knocking on the window throughout the night. This was, to say the least, a harrowing experience for the people in the house. It was harrowing for my neighbours in the leafy environs of Blackheath, who had never been invaded by a group of louts from the tabloid press.
If I thought that that was bad, what was to come was worse. In common with the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South, the attention switched from me—I could take the attention—to innocent people. The most innocent person was my five-year-old daughter, who was most alarmed by the whirring of a dozen or more cameras. She was chased down the path into the John Bull primary school in Blackheath. The school was ultimately invaded by a photographer characteristically wearing a dirty mackintosh, under which dangled his camera. The janitor was asked where my daughter could be found as the photographer was her uncle and had come to take her from school for her own protection from journalists and photographers. The janitor, who knew better, having read the papers of the previous 48 hours, bundled him out. Suffice it to say that much distress was caused to people who were innocent of even the uttering of colourful, honest language. They were connected with me only by blood or friendship.
Someone stole my telephone card index system and gave it to one of the newspapers. Every woman in it from 15 to 90 years was systematically telephoned, often at home when they were sitting with their husbands and families, and asked whether they would like to talk about their affair with me, when none of them had had one. The houses of the most promising, those aged somewhere between 18 and 40, were staked out. Two of the women were offered money. A woman in Glasgow was offered £1,000 by the Sun to tell of her affair with me when in fact she had never had one. She turned the offer down. I shudder to think what would have happened if the newspapers had hit upon a woman who badly needed £1,000 and who might have been prepared to lie. I can speculate about what might have happened—it would have been plastered across every newspaper in the land.
I am probably more aware than any hon. Member of just how deeply distressing and unpleasant is the experience of being pursued by those rat packs, as they are known in Fleet street. The rat packs comprise men and occasionally women. That great organ of truth and knowledge, the Sunday Sport sent a female correspondent. She passed a note through the letter box addressed to my wife in which she gave her name and said she was from the Sunday Sport and wanted to conduct an interview with my wife. She assured my wife in the note that she would conduct it with the greatest sensitivity. My wife was not an expert then on the different qualities of every newspaper in Fleet street. However, she knew enough to know that it was unlikely that the Sunday Sport would treat the interview in that way and she politely turned down the invitation. She was also offered very large sums of money to come out and talk. However, she did not.
I am well aware of the extent of the problem. The issue is whether the Bill is the answer or throws too many babies out with the bath water, as I contend. I will oppose it. If 1321 it is not an abuse of the privileges of the House, I want to state now that if the Bill reaches Committee, I should very much like to be a member of that Committee. I hope that it is not improper to make that bid now.
Britain is already too secret to afford new restrictions on the freedom of the press. Freedom of information in this country is already in too short supply. Along with curbing the excesses of the worst newspapers, the Bill risks curbing the very necessary and good things about the British press—the kind of investigative journalism on which a free society depends.
The House should tread carefully and not appear to be rushing into passing this legislation. I have no wish to impugn the motives of the Bill's supporters. I know some of them very well and respect them enormously. However, William Cobbett in his observations on the immigration of Doctor Joseph Priestly wrote:amongst the persons I have heard expressed a wish to see the Press what they called free and at the same time to extend the restraints on it with regard to persons in their private life, I have never that I know of met with one who had not some powerful motive of his own for the wish, and who did not feel that he had some vulnerable part about himself.I do not agree with that quote. That quote does not apply to many of the Bill's sponsors. However, the House should be careful before giving the impression that it is about digging moats around the castles of the rich and powerful.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
The House has listened with great interest to the personal experiences that the hon. Gentleman has endured. I am sure that I am not alone in being surprised to learn that after those experiences, he will oppose the Bill. Does he accept that today he has been able to put right many of the inaccuracies that have been promulgated throughout the land about him and that that opportunity is not available to our fellow citizens for whom the Bill is designed to provide a remedy?
§ Mr. Galloway
that is a valid point and I hope to deal with it later.
Some of us have bigger castles than others and some have more skeletons in those castles than others. If we have skeletons in our castles, we must be careful in a free society that we do not use our power. We have power and although I am not rich, I have more power, as the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) explained, than most people. I would be very careful not to give the impression that I am filling my moat, which only I as a legislator have the power to do, with sufficient water to keep out the most energetic investigators. We must be careful not to give the impression that we powerful people living in glass houses are trying to ban the throwing of stones. That would send a message to the public which would devalue parliamentary democracy.
It is strange that so many Conservative Members are keen on this legislation. I do not make that as a petty political point. It is a philosophical point. From Edmund Burke downwards it has traditionally been the position of Conservative Members in the House and Conservatives elsewhere that the general rights, such as the right of privacy, should not be—
§ Mr. Galloway
The hon. Gentleman is welcome to intervene, but my understanding, is that the philosophical position of British Conservatives has been to rely on specific remedies rather than to bestow general rights on people.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Edmund Burke was a Conservative? If so he is rewriting history.
§ Mr. Galloway
Edmund Burke was possibly the most conservative Member of Parliament ever. His philosophy was exceedingly conservative. He is the idelogical mentor of many Conservative Members. That cannot be gainsaid. As I understand it, it has always been the position of British Conservatives that the legislative books should not be cluttered with new legislation, unless that legislation is absolutely necessary.
Specific remedies are available, but they must be reformed, radically overhauled and transformed in some cases, to cope with many of the abuses about which we have heard and which we know exist. We do not need to create this general right of privacy.
There is not much support on the Conservative Benches for a Bill of rights. Not many Conservative Members signed Charter 88 which was formulated by some right hon. and hon. Members. There is not much support on the Conservative Benches for giving the British population a general set of rights, and that is presumably because of the philosophical objection of Conservative Members to that approach to these questions.
The hon. Member for Winchester made a Freudian slip. The great advocates of the free market are less keen on a free market in information than in a free market in virtually every other aspect of our national life. The very water that we drink can be subject to the free market. My grandfather used to say that if the Tories could bottle the air we breathe and sell it to us, they would. Conservative Members have less enthusiasm, however, for a free market in information.
There are other remedies, some of which it is true are working imperfectly. Only last week I received £5,000 in damages from The Guardian for something written about me by a journalist whose work I greatly respect. I read his articles avidly every day. I am grateful for Andrew Rawnsley's error, because it has made me a richer man—or at least has made my overdraft smaller.
Libel can be pursued. However imperfect the process is, people can win libel cases and some of them are won spectacularly. I have a splendid libel lawyer whom I recommend to all right hon. and hon. Members, Mr. Oscar Bevsalink of Wright, Webb and Syrett, or "Sue, Grabbit and Runne" as they are known in the trade. He is open for business, and has dealt with some of the most hideous abuses of press power in recent times. Although this will not find much favour with Conservative Members—I have no complaint about it—I shall mention the scandalous calumnies which were printed against Mrs. Carmen Proetta for daring to say that she saw something in Gibraltar which Conservative Members did not like to hear. She was branded the "tart of Gib" and was slandered in every filthy newspaper in the country. Mrs. Proetta, through the good offices of my lawyer and hers, has begun to clean up. She will take the British press for a substantial sum of money. That is available to far too few people. Libel actions take far too long, cost far too much, and the 1323 dangers for people entering into such a case are far too great. It must be said that damages are far too high. There is a clear case for the reform of the libel laws. We need a fast track system with a low cost floor and ceiling of damages, so that these matters can be resolved more quickly and efficiently. But libel is one specific remedy to use against the abuse of the press.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a clear distinction between libel and slander and unwarranted and unjustified intrusion of privacy, which is the area that this legislation seeks to deal with?
§ Mr. Galloway
I accept that there is a difference. Although in some cases the only difference is that something which is printed and is said to be an abuse of privacy is true and something that is libellous is by definition untrue. If I write something about a person that is untrue, I have committed a libel. If I know something about that person—which he does not wish me to reveal—that is true, the Bill would preclude me from revealing that unless I could show public interest, because it would be an abuse of that person's privacy. Not everything that is not libellous should be banned from the public domain. It is correct that some things about people should be known, even where a person's privacy is, by definition, invaded.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are things that are legal in this country—for instance, his own previous life outside this House, where the activities in which he was involved were legal—but about which it might not be appropriate for the wider country to know? In the case of the hon. Gentleman, it sparked an investigation into him, his friends and acquaintances, which on any view was completely unwarranted.
§ Mr. Galloway
I agree that the way in which the investigations were pursued was completely unwarranted. Whether the public has a right to know about the sex lives of politicians is a moot and debatable point, especially if those politicians are members of a party which takes a politically ideological stance against permissiveness for the family, and are for Victorian values. If in their private lives, they are acting in a way which is different from their public stance, it is at least debatable that the public has a right to know about it.
§ Mr. Galloway
It is arguable whether it is covered by the Bill. At the very least, it would be much more difficult for such information to be published than at present.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
The hon. Gentleman is on far sounder ground now than when he was discussing the ideology of the Conservative Party. The hon. Gentleman has made a number of valid points. Is not one of the crucial points to those of us who are not happy with this Bill, not what we know the Bill to cover, but what we are unsure it will cover? Will he reflect, for example, on the legitimate users of private information, such as local 1324 authorities and employers, who may, as I read the Bill, have to seek the permission of every person on whom they have private information to ensure that they are safe and free from the threat of being taken to court?
§ Mr. Galloway
I believe that the Bill—for the reasons which the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) has made clear—produces a potential thicket of offences and litigation which will certainly excite and encourage the saliva of our learned Friends. It would certainly be a bonanza for them.
Dame Elaine Kellet-Bowman (Lancaster)
The use of private information by local authorities would surely be covered by qualified privilege, because it would he in the public interest.
§ Mr. Galloway
The hon. Lady says "surely", but I am not so sure. All I know is that we will potentially be putting into the court rooms and into judges' chambers a thicket of judgments and decisions about what is private and what is public. I do not have the touching faith of some hon. Members in judge-made law. Anyone who has studied the "Spycatcher" affair right up to the final and upper levels of the British judiciary, and anyone who knows the social and political background and ideas of the majority of British judges, would be wary of transferring decisions, such as what can be published in the public domain, from editorial rooms into court rooms. I am rather anxious about that aspect.
The libel law provides one clear avenue. That law must be radically overhauled, but it is a specific remedy which should not be underestimated. Existing law can stop much of the other abuses about which we have heard. The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) raised the plight of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise. I was moved, as all hon. Members were, by that story. The examples given, however, by the hon. Gentleman of the abuses of press power were all blatantly illegal under existing law. Smashing down the doors of the captain's intensive care unit was a clear breach of the law and the journalist who did so should have been hauled off to prison. A new press law is not needed to deal with such an abuse. If someone's house is broken into and an electronic eavesdropping device planted, that is breaking and entering—burglary and all other manner of breaches of the criminal law. A new privacy law is not needed to deal with such things. The laws of trespass could also deal with some of the abuses that have been mentioned.
§ Mr. Devlin
No, this is a different point. Is the hon. Member aware that the legal definition of burglary is entering premises with intent to commit theft, rape or criminal damage? If someone breaks into a person's house to plant a bug it is possible that he is not guilty of breaking and entering with the intent to commit theft as there is no property in information. The only way in which to charge such a person would be if he criminally damaged some part of the property when entering.
§ Mr. Galloway
I am not a lawyer, but I doubt whether it is within the law to break into premises to plant an electronic eavesdropping device.
§ Mr. Galloway
I would rather not give way as I have been reminded that I have been speaking for quite a time and I must get on.
The hon. Member for Winchester said that it was possible to "exaggerate" the dangers of muzzling the press. I have visited many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the middle east where the press is muzzled very nicely thank you. It is not possible to overstate the dangers of muzzling the press. Although the Bill does not represent a major attempt to gag the press, it is significant when taken together with other things that have affected broadcasting and press freedom. Given the other existing intrinsic blocks to freedom of the press in this country, the Bill is a dangerous step, which will assist in muzzling free investigative reporting. It is not possible to exaggerate the significance of that.
Obviously the law must find a balance and I agree with the adage, "My right to swing my right fist ends when it reaches the tip of the other fellow's nose." The hon. Member for Winchester has made it clear that the Bill is designed to shift the balance from journalists and the editor and move decision-making from the editorial room to the court room. That causes me anxiety because public versus private interest is a vexed issue.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)—he is not in the Chamber for the moment—said that it was not in the public interest to know how poor or how rich a Member of Parliament is. I disagree. If an hon. Member has millions of pounds in the bank it is a matter of public interest because that influences his perceptions of the world. If an hon. Member has an overdraft of more than £500,000 that is also in the public interest. I must declare that I have an overdraft, but it is not of that dimension. If I had a gigantic overdraft the public would have a right to know because it reveals something about the way in which I conduct my financial affairs. Therefore, that would have some influence on my ability to consider the nation's financial and economic affairs. It is absurd to pretend otherwise. I was astonished that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery—a Liberal at that—said that the public had no right to know such things.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the difficulties of defining what is or is not in the public interest and I shall enlarge upon that later.
The hon. Gentleman believes that it would be in the public interest for the financial affairs of a politician to be known and that if that person has £20 million in the bank, that should be common knowledge. Surely there is a good argument against that on the ground that if that information is known it is likely that his children could be liable to kidnap.
Mr. Eric S. Heller (Liverpool, Walton)
Some of our previous Prime Ministers have had great difficulties in raising personal finance from time to time, but that did not make them lousy Prime Ministers. Perhaps they could not maintain their personal finances, but that did not mean that they did not make a great contribution to the country. I believe that my hon. Friend's argument is rather weak.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Interventions are perfectly in order, of course, but I hope the House will remember that they prolong speeches.
§ Mr. Galloway
I will reach a conclusion shortly. I accept the points made by my hon. Friend and by the Minister. Although a Chancellor of the Exchequer may have an overdraft of £700,000 that does not, of course, negate the possibility of his being a good Chancellor. Nevertheless that information should be in the public domain so that people can weigh in the balance the financial skills, responsibility and probity of that Chancellor. I am not suggesting that every politician should go outside and hold up his bank balance, but we cannot complain if our financial affairs become public knowledge and if they are considered germane by those who write about us.
We have spent most of the debate discussing the press—we have not talked about television or radio—but what about the publishing industry? What about the biographer and those who write memoirs? Those activities, which are crucial to a free society, would be severely circumscribed by the Bill.
I believe that it is generally accepted that when a biography is written about someone of interest, one wants to know about the whole man. As a result of the Bill, the subject of a biography could go to court and suppress large sections of it because he does not want the public to know certain things. I do not believe that that is in the public interest.
Goldman's biography of John Lennon was a repugnant piece of work, which traduced the memory of a great man. Large sections of that book could have been suppressed under the Bill by action through the British courts. Although I loathed Mr. Goldman's book, I could not be party to passing a law that significantly precluded his right to write. Kitty Kelly wrote a marvellous biography about Frank Sinatra which revealed appalling aspects of his character. As a fan of Frank Sinatra I was deeply distressed by those disclosures. Unless I am reading the Bill wrong, I believe that large sections of Kitty Kelly's book could be suppressed. If that happened we would not know the things we now know about Frank Sinatra. Some hon. Members may say that that does not matter a fig, but as a fan, or rather a former fan of Frank Sinatra, I believe that it does.
I believe that the Official Secrets Bill, the broadcasting and terrorism measures and this Bill clearly intend—perhaps unwittingly in the latter case—to chip away at our cherished and vital freedoms. That would take us down the road not to totalitarian dictatorship, but towards the status of a third-rate democracy—the poor man's democracy in Europe. I hope that we shall not take another step down that road by passing the Bill.
§ Mr. John Hannam (Exeter)
. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) appeared to be presenting a strong argument in support of the Bill, with examples of the gross intrusions he has experienced, but he came down in judgment against the Bill, on the same grounds as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) had expressed in an article in the Evening Standard last night. The grounds were that we should continue to give the media and press another chance and yet another chance to put its house in order.
1327 I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) not only on his luck in the ballot, but on taking on such a contentious and difficult issue and presenting it in the right way. I do not intend to speak for long, but I want to express my support for the principle behind the Bill and to give the reasons why the time has come for us to make the move from self-regulation to positive legal protection. It is sad that after all the years of promises being given by the media that they would uphold and practise a reasonable level of professional ethics, Parliament is having to consider their imposition by statute.
Of course, as Members of Parliament, we are opening ourselves to the usual barrage of articles accusing us of protecting our own personal interests. That is par for the journalistic course. But in all the articles that I have read implying that, there were also undercurrents of a realisation that standards have dropped too far and that it is no great surprise that legislation is being considered. The article written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford falls into the same trap of relating the Bill to an obsession of Members of Parliament to take their revenge on all the journalists who, from time to time, have invaded their privacy. That is a wrong presumption. When we enter politics, we know that we are placing ourselves in an exposed position. The reason why we have become so incensed about the lowering of standards of reporting is our contacts with constituents and our involvement in major incidents, when members of the public have suddenly found themselves thrust into the limelight. We know how often their personal privacy is being trodden underfoot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) pointed out so eloquently earlier.
Like other hon. Members, I want to recount a couple of examples of the type of intrusion that I should like to see stopped and which took place long before I entered politics. When I started my business career, I opened a small restaurant in Somerset, which my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester and for Stafford (Mr. Cash) visited in those early days. Early one evening, many years ago, a distinguished man who had achieved a good deal of publicity because of his romance with a certain royal personage, came with his elderly mother to have a meal. His mother lived nearby in Somerset. During our conversation, I learnt that they had spent the earlier part of the afternoon looking at poultry houses at a well-known poultry house manufacturer, Harry Hebditch Ltd. of Martock.
Two or three hours later, I received a telephone call from William Hickey of the Daily Express, asking me whether it was true that Group-Captain Peter Townsend had been entertaining a young woman at my restaurant. In my naievity, I thought that if I explained the simple truth, I should clear up his misapprehension, so I said that Mr. Townsend had dined at the restaurant with his mother and that he had been looking at poultry houses at a nearby factory. At midnight, that journalist arrived at the front door of poor Mr. Hebditch, the manufacturer of the poultry houses, woke him up, asked the same questions and was told the same true story. An hour later, he arrived at my front door and was sent away with a flea in his ear. An hour later, he arrived at the door of the mother of Mr. Townsend. With all the information that he had received, one would have expected the story to end there. But the next day, the headlines said: 1328Ex-Royal lover dines with woman friend in secluded restaurant.That was the first example in my life of intrusion and misrepresentation.
My second example happened a year later. I was skiing at Kitzbiihel in Austria and I happened to be staying at the same hotel as the young Aga Khan—luckily, as I was on a package holiday. The Aga Khan was being subjected to horrific press investigation. We were horrified, several days later, to find that a newspaper reporter and photographer—
§ Mr. Hannam
My package tour was useful, but did not last many years after that. Prices are obviously, rocketing up.
After two or three days, we found that the press had positioned a photographer and journalist in a room opposite the hotel and had taken photographs through the only window visible, which happened to be the window of the Aga Khan's hotel bathroom. One cannot imagine how one could possibly use that in publicity, but photographs were taken and duly published. Such gross intrusions of the privacy of those individuals so disgusted me that I, like so many others, have always recoiled from reading newspapers and magazines that trade in such material.
What has happened since? Have the successive inquiries and reports and Press Council actions resulted in the establishment of ethical standards by the media? The answer must be no. With 309 hon. Members signing a motion last year supporting the Right of Privacy Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, there is no doubt that we feel that something pretty drastic must be done.
Journalists to whom I have talked in recent weeks admit—privately, as one would expect—that a bottom line should be drawn on their standards and conduct. We see that privacy laws exist in other countries without threat to press freedom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, the individual is protected under our laws against assault, defamation, trespass of property and patent and public order offences, but no effective legal protection exists for private life under English law, despite our ratification of the European convention on human rights and the international convenant on civil and political rights.
The Bill is a genuine attempt to strike the correct balance between the necessary freedom to publish information that is in the public interest—and that would cover a great deal of the activities of Members of Parliament—and the protection for every man and woman, regardless of position or wealth, against the awful intrusions that the media so often feel they have carte blanche to operate. We are told by opponents of the Bill that the definitions are too vague and leave too much to the discretion of judges. I have always believed that our system of common law works on the assumption that the courts build up case law so that effective judgments cart evolve. I do not doubt that the Bill will need some amendment in Committee and I hope that the Government will lend their support to that course rather than contriving to have the Bill to be killed.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford in his article took the line that, once again, we should give the press the benefit of the doubt, just as we did in 1970, 1972, 1977 and have repeatedly since then. If I believed that the Press Council in the 1990s would be any more effective 1329 than its much criticised predecessors, I might be inclined to hold back. If I believed that the editors and newspaper owners themselves would be more ethical in applying article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which provides that:Everybody has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence,I might be inclined to hold back from supporting the Bill. But the appointment by the Sun of its own in-house ombudsman sent me scurrying back to my original position of total support for the Bill. I should like to see legal aid available and I should like access to juries, but the important thing at this stage is to give this vital human rights legislation a Second reading. I hope that the House will do that.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), because I, too, support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) has set out his stall most eloquently and has caught the public mood because public opinion is now strongly behind this measure.
The debate is being held because of growing public concern, unchecked by the propaganda of eminent leader writers, about the excesses of the press—especially at its gutter end. For example, there is intrusion into family grief such as occurred in the case of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise. That case was eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), and many other examples abound from recent tragedies.
Secondly, there is hounding of the royal family, the intrusion of gigantic telephoto lenses that are carried off at great expense to distant islands in the West Indies and elsewhere, so that at no time are members of the royal family allowed any time to themselves free from the fear that any private action of theirs could be exposed and subjected to the gaze of the tabloid press. Thirdly, there is the persecution of individuals, salacious stories about private lives that titillate the public and line the pockets of unscrupulous journalists and their proprietors.
As has been said, some journalists say, "We do not like doing this but we are obliged to do it." There are examples of that in history where people have said, "I was only obeying orders." Such journalists could resign if they do not like the way in which their employer requires them to work.
I shall be brief and give just one example in the third category of those that I have mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley)—I hope that that does not cause him too much enbarrassment—that people in public life are entitled to some protection. That point was most eloquently made by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) whose personal experience moved the House. It certainly moved me. In my own small way I had a similar experience when I asked a question at Prime Minister's Question Time. I asked my right hon. Friend whether she would support the reintroduction of corporal punishment because the day before three men had tried to batter down the door of my home at 2 o'clock in the afternoon when 1330 my wife was there with my baby son. That seemed a perfectly reasonable example to promote the case that I was making.
Within half an hour of asking the question I had a frantic call from my wife who told me that hordes of journalists were at the door and that one newspaper had said that unless it got a nice photograph it would put in the newspaper a photograph of the house. I had to deal with the news editor of that newspaper and tell him that I would be grateful if he did not print a photograph of my house because that would attract all sorts of vandals who would know that Members of Parliament work odd hours. I had to do a deal and I regretted that. However in the interests of my family I had to do it.
Even if we have not had such experiences ourselves, many of us, like my hon. Friend the member for Aldershot, have constituents who have had such experiences. Our concern today should not be for ourselves. As I said to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) Members of Parliament are influential and in the House we have the privilege of being able to expose these excesses. The hon. Gentleman has been able to put the record right today. Our concern should be for those who have no such remedy.
Every Sunday I go to my local newsagent to scan the press. I resent paying any money to line the pockets of newspaper proprietors and have an arrangement with my newsagent to look through the papers. A glance at page one is quite sufficient and one does not need to delve any further. I shall forgo the example of a story about a world war 2 bomber found in outer space. Recently a tabloid gutter newspaper—I shall not name it or give details of the issue, because I do not want to add to the newspaper's notoriety—had a story exposing the private life of an accomplished actor who plays in a popular comedy series. He is said to have said, "I am aware that this could destroy me."
We are not talking about a politician who publically advocates sobriety but is to be found in the Kremlin bar at midnight stoned out of his mind. I am not suggesting that any hon. Members are in that category, because I would be out of order if I did that. We are not talking about somebody who has taken a conscious decision to enter public life or about a clergyman who has had a secret affair with the doctor's wife. We are talking about a private individual whose sole qualification for such attention is that he has become immensely popular with the public because the talent that he deploys is widely appreciated and enjoyed by many viewers. What right have a couple of Wapping hacks to pillory this man and, in his words, "destroy him"? I strongly disapprove of the behaviour of which he is said to have been guilty, but I protest that he is not public property and has a right to a private life.
The report was sanctimonious garbage and issued an unbelievably cant invitation to readers to phone in on separate telephone numbers to say whether the actor should stay in the television series or be harried out by a bunch of unscrupulous, disgraceful, disreputable and probably anonymous hacks whose own private lives would fail to stand up to the scrutiny of a lighted match. No doubt there will be a follow-up story about this man. I have made the assumption that all this is true.
There is also the case of an hon. Friend who left the House at the last election. He is still an hon. Friend but is no longer a Member of the House. I am speaking about Harvey Proctor, and many of us know about his 1331 experience. He was charged with an offence and between his being charged and convicted a journalist called Annette Witteridge, a freelancer working for the News of the World, wrote a story in May 1987 suggesting that Harvey Proctor's friends were concerned about his health and that he should have an AIDS test. She told him that she had checked the story but later admitted that she had not done so and four or five months later her source told her that it was a pack of lies.
To this day the "News of the Screws"—for that is the popular name for the News of the World—has failed to retract that story. It is despicable that such people should continue to be allowed to operate in what is called a profession. They should have been drummed out of it long ago. I hope that those two examples show the kind of problem with which we are dealing.
The press is in part hostile to the Bill. Of course freedom of expression is vital and no hon. Member would gainsay that. However that freedom does not extend to the right to destroy individuals or their characters. The hon. Member for Hillhead is not in the Chamber. I say for his benefit that the free market operates, not in a vacuum but within bounds. There is the law of defamation, and the sponsors of the Bill seek to provide further clarification of the bounds within which free comment may take place. The press says that self-regulation is the safeguard, but, as early as 1962, Lord Shawcross was critical of the Press Council. Over many years we have had extensive declarations of good intent from the Press Council, none of which in my view, nor I think in the view of the House has been fulfilled.
There was a declaration of principle on privacy in April 1976 which stated:The publication of information about the private lives or concerns of individuals without their consent is only acceptable if there is a legitimate public interest overriding the right of privacy.That is clearly the kind of thing that the Bill seeks to address, but has the press lived up to that? The answer is no. I do not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) said in his article in yesterday's Evening Standard and I told him so last night. There is a remedy to him. He is a powerful man and can tell the press barons that, if they go beyond the boundary of what he deems to be his private life, he will come down on them like a ton of bricks. That remedy is not open to many of our fellow citizens to whom this Bill would give a remedy. That is why I have the greatest pleasure in supporting the Bill and I hope that it will be carried by the House.
§ Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)
I support the Bill and do so for good reason. We should always remember that privacy is important to all of us, rich or poor, Socialist or non-Socialist. I am sure that many of us can speak from personal experiences. I can certainly give one or or two examples of my own.
An incident involving my assistant allegedly took place in the shower room of this House. I went to the Serjeant at Arms and asked for information about that alleged incident. He said that he had no information. In other words, the incident did not take place, but that did not stop the Sun printing a story. Of course, it was exciting stuff, but it was untrue. Nor did it stop the News of the World, the sister paper of the Sun, going one step further.
1332 It alleged that my assistant had become pregnant as a result of that so-called incident and it justified its allegation on the basis of a report thought up by a drug addict. That individual was paid a lot of money for that story. Not only did the Murdoch press feed his craving for drugs, but it fed a pack of lies to the public.
Naturally, the News of the World wanted to interview my assistant and offered her £30,000 for her story. There was no story, but that did not stop the newspaper and its reporters hounding my assistant, her husband and her relatives. That was despicable. They attempted to dig the dirt, but as they found no dirt, they had to invent the dirt. That is a sad reflection on the tabloids of this country.
If I condemn the Murdoch empire, I also condemn the Maxwell empire because its so-called newspaper, The People, thought that it could do a flyer. It thought that it would do a similar type of story about me, so what did it do? It found that I had originally stayed in Scotland. Journalists went to the flat at my old address. They spoke to the neighbours and asked them, "Could you find anything wrong with Ron Brown's presence at this address?" There was no criticism, but they found an old-age pensioner in that street and gave him a great deal of money to make a number of allegations. That old man—I do not blame him; no doubt the money was useful—alleged that he could see into my bedroom. He said that he could see all sorts of lurid events which allegedly took place there. That is remarkable. He could see through two sets of curtains and two sets of brick walls because the bedroom is at the other side of the house. That is a fact. The house is still there and is now occupied by a Tory Member. I am sure that he will give a guided tour to prove my point.
Surely we have reached a stage where any story can be pumped out by the tabloids and the media, provided that they can pay for it. Unfortunately, many people are willing to accept money, irrespective of the truth of the incident. The tabloids go from bad to worse. Of course, they live up to their slogan which states, about stories, "Make it simple, make it juicy, and make it up". That has repeatedly been the case in recent years and that slogan unfortunately brings the media into disrepute. It affects many honourable journalists because most of us suspect journalists' motives. That may be unfair, but the yardstick that we use as Members of Parliament must sometimes be used elsewhere.
Some people will no doubt suggest that I am exaggerating, that I complain too much and that, after all, I could go to the Press Council. I did go to the Press Council, but it did very little. It was not particularly interested and, when it considered all the allegations, it favoured, in the main, the media. It supported the tabloids, yet the tabloids could produce no evidence against me or my assistant.
Let me give another example of how the Press Council operates. Last January, I was in Afghanistan, negotiating the release of a French journalist who was held by the Afghan Government. There was an agreement for me to phone in reports about my efforts to the Press Association. Those reports were mentioned by the Sunday Express which, in turn, tried to rubbish my efforts. It said that I had made reverse-charge calls to the Press Association from Afghanistan, so I complained to the Press Council. The council looked at my complaint and found in favour of the Sunday Express, yet the Press Association has now 1333 admitted that it was wrong and that the Press Council was wrong. To my knowledge the Press Council has not reversed its decision.
That typifies the attitude of the Press Council at present. If a Member of Parliament cannot get a fair hearing from the Press council, who can? It will certainly not be the people outside this place whom we represent. I say that because a particular case springs to mind. Some time ago there was a rape case in Leith. It was a particularly nasty case and the tabloids were anxious to interview the victim and the mother. The mother refused and told the Sun in particular that she did not want to say anything. What did the Sun do? It made up an interview and, when a complaint was lodged with the Press Council, the council did nothing to help that particular lady.
Of course, if a person has bags of money, he can always go to the courts. We should always remember Gerald Nabarro's infamous remark that, if one is rich, one can buy justice. Sadly, that is the case today. Not everyone is wealthy enough to hire lawyers or has the money of Elton John, Jeffrey Archer or Koo Stark. Most people simply cannot afford lawyers to go to court.
I do not always agree with the Prime Minister, but she made the point some time ago, when she condemned trial by the media, that we must not simply say that we condemn it; we should do something about it. That is why, if we wish to look for a remedy, we must consider this Bill. It may not be perfect, but at least it is a step in the right direction and perhaps it will, for once, provide some basic rights and bring some sanity back to this country, particularly in the way that reports are put out by the media. This is an important Bill and I hope that all hon. Members will support it.
§ Mr. Ivan Lawrence
I accord my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) for judging the moment of parliamentary and public anger that enables him to make this difficult change to the law. It is a great honour to be a sponsor.
The gutter press is the unacceptable face of our free society. If the press does not like the Bill, it has only itself to blame, for, despite continuous warnings over many years, it has chosen to do nothing to control itself. The Bill is long overdue, and few in Britain will dispute that. One wonders why such a law was not placed on the statute book before.
It is partly because we do not have a written constitution enshrining a Bill of rights. We tend to forbid certain actions rather than give rights to enjoy. It is partly because the law of defamation, trespass and confidence, and the criminal law of breach of peace, have frequently been said to be adequate for dealing with problems caused by infringements of privacy. The argument that the Mancroft Bill of the 1960s was unworkable was advanced by the then very powerful Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir. It was said that such legislation would constitute a serious danger to a free press and its right to publish and enjoy free expression. Brian Walden's Bill was withdrawn when the Home Secretary of the day announced that the Government proposed establishing a Royal Commission. Resistance to a privacy law was underlined by powerful law reform committees, such as the Younger committee in 1334 1974 and the Porter committee on defamation in 1948. The conclusion reached by them all was that the right to privacy was too drastic a remedy for dealing with the relatively infrequent occasions when privacy had been abused, and that the risk of newspapers being deterred from communicating matters of great public concern was so high that occasional intrusions should be tolerated. We can now draw on the experience of countries such as the United States that have a law of privacy, and where there seems to be little problem in telling the public what they need to know in their own interest, notwithstanding such laws.
The tide has now risen, and it is to be hoped that no Canute seated at Wapping or by the river Fleet will turn it back. How has that happened? It is because the catalogue of horrors has grown too large and has been brought too closely to the attention of right hon and hon. Members.
I have no need to improve on the stories advanced today by my hon. Friends the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) and for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), and the hon. Members for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo), for Hillhead and for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown). However, I make mention of the totally despicable behaviour, by whichever newspaper it was, when, after the wife of one of the House's most respected Members was killed in a terrorist explosion and he lay maimed and mauled, to send its reporters to their young children's school to ask how they felt about what happened to their parents. It is difficult to imagine a more despicable act. It was at that moment that my thoughts turned to doing something far more drastic than had been previously attempted, to discipline the behaviour of a section of the press.
The tide has turned because it is now dawning on many people that, given the existence of communications satellites, sophisticated listening devices, computers and high-definition long-distance photography, the situation will become very much worse unless something is done. There is the realisation also that the Press Council has utterly failed. That is not its fault. It was never a court of law, and never had the power to stop publication. However, when a former Press Council chairman, Sir Zelman Cowen, and the present holder of that office, Louis Blom-Cooper, think that the time has come for the law to step in because the council is too feeble to discipline the gutter press, we must take cognisance of that.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
Will my hon. and learned Friend say when Louis Blom-Cooper commented that the law should step in? I understand that he never made such a comment. He said that he felt the Press Council as currently constituted needs changing, and that he proposes making certain amendments next week. I am not aware that he has ever made the statement that the law should step in and supplant the Press Council.
§ Mr. Lawrence
That is the conclusion I draw from the criticism levied by the current chairman of the council and by one of his predecessors—that their frustration is so great that something must be done. Whether the answer is strengthening the Press Council or introducing a right of privacy is a matter for the House to consider.
The tide has turned also because it is now clear that remedies existing in other areas of the law of tort and of the criminal law are inadequate for dealing with the overwhelming flood of press abuse. The hon. Member for 1335 Hillhead was wrong to suggest that the crime of burglary will necessarily deter someone from entering premises for the purpose of bugging them.
The final reason why I believe the tide has turned is this excellent Bill, which neatly avoids the imprecise and generalised provisions of a right to privacy that has been the subject of past criticism because of its unworkability, in favour of a more practical and realistic approach to protecting the public misuse of private information. So that privacy can be breached, yes, but the product of it cannot he used—thus making it a waste of time to invade privacy.
This is a Bill whose time has come. It will be welcomed by all fair-minded people, as it will by all who have suffered at the hands of the gutter press and by their families, whose suffering has often been much greater. I suspect that the Bill is welcomed by a large section of the press, if only with relief that at last something is being done to stop the gutter press from doing something that is clearly indecent, to protect circulation when their competitors are doing the same thing. The Bill will certainly be welcomed by the decent press as a step forward in protecting the liberty of the subject. The Bill will be popular in the country because it recognises the deep feeling among all those who are privileged to live in a free society—for it has been said that, of all the jewels in the crown of human life, none shines so bright as the right to be left alone.
§ Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)
I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on his good fortune in the ballot, and also on his good judgment in choosing this topic. I thank him for doing me the honour of asking me to be one of the Bill's Labour sponsors, an honour that I gladly accept. While I have one or two reservations at this stage, as would anyone, I assure the hon. Gentleman and the Bill's other sponsors that I shall do all I can to improve the Bill and help it to reach the statute book.
Having listened carefully to the debate since 9.30 this morning, I have observed a number of ironies. First, I find it ironic that we should be criticising the press and at the same time offering its members a field day at our expense. I have been mildly amused at the almost salacious style of certain sketch writers who have scurried in and out of the Press Gallery as different hon. Members have stood up to speak. It is significant that they have been absent when the tone of the debate has been serious. I do not, of course, wish to suggest that any of it has been frivolous, but I think that the journalists have been much more interested in the gossipy, confessional contributions of some hon. Members than in attempts to analyse the problem seriously.
I do not blame the journalists for that. They make their bread by selling such nonsense, and we cannot expect them to change today simply because we happen to be debating their affairs—or our affairs, as discussed by them—any more than we can expect the leopard to change its spots.
I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) has returned to the Chamber. He produced a wonderful exposé—an appropriate word in this context—of the case for the Bill, and then went on to say that it posed a threat to freedom. I 1336 understand what he means, and genuinely sympathise with the need to protect press freedom; but freedom is a two-way thing.
In an article that has already been mentioned several times this morning, the eminent barrister Robert Alexander quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying:The right to swing my fist stops where the other man's nose begins.That is fine as far as it goes, but does it go far enough? I have been accused by the press of almost swinging my list. Had I done so, which I did not, and my fist had not landed, it could have been said that no freedom had been violated. But the threat to swing a fist is indeed an infringemen1 of freedom if the potential victim happens to be frightened of receiving a fisticuff, as most people are.
I would go much further than Robert Alexander. I do not think that it is enough for my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead to justify his opposition on those grounds. It is certainly not fair for him to say that he wants to be on the Standing Committee simply because he thinks that the Bill threatens to infringe freedoms and he wants to stop it from doing so if he will not allow freedom to those who are threatened.
It is also ironic that we should be discussing openness of access and what should and should not be permissible, and seeking to defend individual privacy from one point of view, when for a couple of days this week we have discussed the probability of Government agents freely infringing individual privacy. It is reassuring to see that so many Conservative Members have turned out to support the Bill; I only wish that I had seen as much ardent enthusiasm for the protection of the individual earlier this week. I notice that the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household is nodding his head. I do not know whether he is nodding his head in agreement or whether he is nodding his head in appreciation of the irony of the situation. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is nodding off."] Ah, well, there we go.
I reaffirm my enthusiasm for the measure, as long as it is given a good airing in Committee. I promise the sponsor of the Bill all my support.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)
No hon. Member can have sat through this morning's debate without being deeply moved by the experiences of many of the speakers that have been so eloquently recounted—some serio-comic and some desperately serious, which I found very moving, such as the speech of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). As is well known, I have crossed swords with the press and the broadcasting media from time to time, but I have no personal axe to grind in the debate. My disputes with them were entirely outwith the ambit of the Bill. We must draw a firm distinction between the laws of libel and what they are designed to cope with and the mischief with which this Bill is designed to cope.
I am sure that all hon. Members agree with the aims and objects of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), to whom we must all be grateful for sponsoring the Bill. Article 8 of the European convention on human rights provides for precisely the kind of result that my hon. Friend wishes to be achieved, but it does so in more generalised terms. Article 8 says that everybody has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
Freedoms of a similar kind have been protected In English law for centuries. There is freedom of the person 1337 from physical attack, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) pointed out. It includes causing somebody to fear that he is about to be hit. That is already covered by the criminal law. There is also freedom to enjoy our property without molestation and free from invasion from without. In an eloquent speech in this House 250 years ago, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, said:The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail—its roof may shake—the wind may blow through it—the storm may enter—the rain may enter—but the King of England cannot enter—all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement.The law of this country, both the statutory and the common law as it has developed throughout the centuries, has protected private individuals against unwarranted incursions into their privacy in respect of their physical assets and persons. The time is now upon us when we should extend that protection to private life.
That view is shared by the Press Council, which in its 1976 annual report said:The publication of information about the private lives or concerns of individuals without their consent is only acceptable if there is a legitimate public interest overriding the right to privacy.That is precisely what the Bill is designed to achieve.
Several hon. Members have pointed out that the Press Council, as an exercise in self-regulation, has manifestly failed. This morning we have heard of countless examples of the press acting like a pack of ravening hounds, setting itself on almost defenceless individuals and tearing them to pieces. The heartless, pitiless and merciless individuals who have been responsible for some of these excesses in many ways deserve our pity. How they sleep at night knowing what they have done, Heaven knows.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) pointed out, the former chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen, has said that he is sick at heart at the Press Council's failures and the revelations that have exposed people to hurt. Not all journalists today are quite as brazen as some who have treated the Press Council with contempt in years gone by. Mr. John Gordon, a former editor of the Sunday Express, when threatened by a report on him to the Press Council for failure to publish a justified factual correction, said this to his correspondent:You can report me to the Press Council, Madam Tussaud's, the Society for the Protection of Sputniks, NATO, UNESCO or the Dancing Dervishes' Association as you wish. May you enjoy yourself.That is a fairly robust rejection of the Press Council and the protection which it is supposed to offer readers.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
I had a job with the Press Council at that time. He was the only one who treated it with such disrespect while it was under the chairmanship of Lord Devlin. It was only after Lord Devlin left that the press began to put two fingers up to it.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I simply cannot believe that my hon. Friend was a member of the Press Council that long ago. She does not look as if she could satisfy the dates to which she referred.
Even today there are such examples, and the Sun is foremost among them. There was the case of Mr. Terrance McCabe who refused to cross the picket line at Wapping. I was wholly opposed to the dispute at Wapping and I thought that the unions were quite wrong. But I am happy 1338 to draw to the attention of the House an example which involves somebody who is wholly opposed to what I stand for which demonstrates the tyranny of the press over individuals. Mr. McCabe refused to cross the picket line at Wapping. The Sun then printed a story about him calling him a "lying trucker" and printed details of his previous convictions. That article was condemned by the Press Council. The Sun responded by repeating the allegations and dared Mr. McCabe to sue. The Press Council further censured the Sun. As a result the Sun published the adjudication prominently and in full and repeated the allegations for the third time. Quite manifestly, the Press Council is not treated seriously by the press.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am sure that hon. Members will be moved by what my hon. Friend has said.
The position of the Press Council is so bad that in 1980 the NUJ withdrew its support for the Press Council on the ground that it was incapable of reform and wholly ineffective. I share the view of the NUJ, as do most hon. Members present today.
My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), who I know is a libertarian and is opposed to the Bill, drew attention to article 10 of the European convention on human rights which refers to the right to information. But that right to information is already restricted in many respects by existing law, not least by the law relating to defamation which by and large concerns only false allegations; but in some cases, even the truth is defeated as a defence of defamation by proof of malice, so there are restrictions on the dissemination of truthful information where it is not regarded as being justifiable in the public interest. The defence of fair comment in defamation is available only if that fair comment is made in the public interest.
If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) were to extend his argument that we cannot trust the courts to decide such issues, logic would dictate that we remove one of the existing defences in the law of defamation which was designed to protect persons making comments in the public interest.
The Bill does not introduce anything particularly novel in the method by which it seeks to achieve its object. Over the centuries the courts have developed the law in a flexible way and it will be further developed according to the acceptance of society at the time.
§ Mr. Lawrence
My hon. Friend does not need to be defensive in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) because the international covenant on civil and political rights and the European convention on human rights include rights of privacy, so we are inconsistent with those international agreements by not having such a right.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for that information. It is true that we are unusual amongst industrial and advanced states in having no protection for the rights of privacy.
§ Mr. Greg Knight
As my hon. Friend spent the last few minutes of his speech referring to my intervention, I think 1339 that he will accept that it is only right for me to place on record the reason why I made that intervention. It is not fair to make a selective reference to a convention. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) referred to article 8, but we should also appreciate that the convention contains article 10.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) spoke about other countries' laws on privacy. He should bear in mind that their laws on defamation are different from ours. We should look at the whole picture and not just at this particular narrow matter.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I accept that. The experiences of different countries will differ. Some countries' laws are more draconian than the Bill's provisions, and others are less so. Nevertheless, we are unusual amongst Western countries in having no proper protection for the individual against the abuses about which we have heard so much this morning.
I resent the view expressed by some hon. Members who, although they support the Bill, say that, as public figures, we are not entitled to privacy in our personal lives. There are aspects of our behaviour in private that impinge on our public duties, and it is right that the public should have a right to know about those actions and we should be held accountable for them. However, there is a swathe of activities which may not appeal to everyone but which are private and which those in the public eye are entitled to carry out privately.
Mr. Nigel Dempster, who performs a function that might be described as dandruff on the shoulders of Fleet street—that is the politest way to describe him—said:People who promote themselves as Members of Parliament, or write books and flog them to the public, or open their houses for profit, forfeit their right to their personal lives. They know that. They've known that throughout the history of this great country of ours.That is an example of arrogance in the press that we are here to complain about—[Interruption.] I look forward to the revelations to come in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett).
I am anxious to complete my speech but I shall address the complaint made by opponents of the Bill that the proposals it contains are vague. They are no more vague than the concepts used in the common laws of negligence and nuisance and others upon which British law is based—the concept of reasonableness and the reasonable man. For 500 or 600 years the courts have developed and interpreted those concepts according to the facts of each case. The courts will continue to be able to do that and to develop in accordance with changes in feeling about this issue as they do in other matters.
If the Bill is passed, as I hope it will be, it will not lead to undue prohibition of freedom of speech. There are few countries in which that principle is taken more seriously than in the United States where it is protected by the constitution and the Supreme Court. The United States has a law of privacy which, in many respects, is similar to that which we are seeking to achieve in the Bill. It is applicable, inter alia, only if it involves private facts that do not belong to the category of legitimate news, the provisions of which are protected by the United States guarantee of freedom of speech. Although there is no written constitution in this country, we can replicate the provisions in the United States on legitimate access to information.
1340 It has been said before that nobody lost money by underestimating the public taste. Tabloid newspapers have proved that daily for many years. We should ask them to do what the News of the Worldused to place at the end of its agent provocateur articles—make an excuse and leave.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton)
It may be for the convenience of the House if I intervene to give the Government's view on the Bill.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on his success in the ballot and on the skilful, persuasive and eloquent manner in which he invited the House to give the Bill a Second Reading. I pay tribute to the fact that he has not been afraid to make use of his good fortune in the ballot to take up an issue which, while undoubtedly of much public interest and importance, has nonetheless had a somewhat chequered history of previous attempts to legislate. I admire the pertinacity of my hon. Friend and his drafting ally, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). I have seen them a number of times in recent weeks huddled together in various parts of the House like Cassius and Casca, looking lean and hungry while preparing the Bill. I hope only that it is a Fleet street Julius Caesar whom they have in their sights rather than a Minister.
The roll call of those who have tried but failed to introduce a statutory right of privacy is impressive. Previous attempts were made by Lord Mancroft in 1961, Alex Lyon in 1967, Brian Walden in 1969 and, most recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford in 1987. The Walden Bill led the then Home Secretary, now Lord Callaghan, to establish a committee on privacy under the chairmanship of the late Sir Kenneth Younger, which reported in 1972. Despite its age, the Younger report is still the definitive work on the subject. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester that its findings were naive. Events have moved on since 1972 and the world described by Younger was in some respects different from that of today. I should not wish to suggest that Younger's recommendations must necessarily represent the last word, but much of the committee's underlying analysis remains good and we must carefully consider the arguments that it presented.
I echo strongly what my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and other hon. Members said about the extent of concern at the intrusion into individuals' private lives. I should not want to ignore the serious distress and hurt that can be caused to victims and their families. Undoubtedly, there is growing resentment in many quarters at the way in which some of the tabloid press blatantly exploits details of the private lives of not only public figures but, on too many occasions, ordinary people such as victims of disasters and their relatives, who, through no choice of their own, but through bad luck or happenstance, are thrust into the public eye. I hope that what has been said in the debate will be widely reported in the tabloids and the serious press.
§ Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)
Does the Minister accept that the behaviour of the tabloid press has become worse since Younger reported?
§ Mr. Renton
That point has been made often in the debate, and I shall return to it later.
1341 There is something very objectionable about seeing the privacy of individuals invaded and lives, reputations and families destroyed by newspapers in pursuit simply of higher circulation figures. At times it seems as if the freedom of the press has degenerated into unpleasant and unforgivable licence. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) gave us examples of the disgraceful behaviour of journalists after the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) picked up on that theme in his inimitable columnist style. To show that the feeling is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House, I am sure that we all have much sympathy with the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) and a sense of disgust at some of the things described by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway).
It is one thing to feel a sense of outrage and distaste about those things, but it is quite another to devise a sensible and satisfactory means of putting matters right. To use the metaphor employed by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, we need a means that will keep the water in the moat surrounding the metaphorical castle rather than one which allows it to seep out in unforeseen ways.
§ Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)
Does the Minister agree that as well as the invasion of privacy and the harm that is done to individuals and families, we should also consider the standards of our media and press? Material involving degeneracy and a low level of titillation does not simply relate to the invasion of privacy. There must be fundamental standards in the press. That enters the argument as well.
§ Mr. Renton
The hon. Lady is trying to lead me down an avenue in which she is very interested and which she may want to explore in the context of another private Member's Bill later in the Session.
I understand and sympathise with the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and his sponsors that this area calls for legislative action. I am aware that others take a similar view. Some years ago a committee of Justice, the British section of the International Commission of Jurists, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester referred, published an influential report calling for the creation of a general right of privacy. That report was the basis for Brian Walden's subsequent Bill and the arguments have been carried forward since by Peter Carter-Ruck and most recently by Lord Alexander in his article in The Daily Telegraphlast week.
Those who advocate a change in the law may be right. The Government are not prepared to say that they are wrong or that we have a better solution to put before the House. Nor do we want to argue, despite the complexities, that this is a subject which is inherently unsuitable for private Members' legislation. We shall not therefore oppose the Second Reading. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and his sponsors will take comfort from that. If it is the wish of the House, we are prepared for the Bill to be considered in detail in Committee. However, having said that, it is right for me to put on record a number of the reservations which the Government have about legislating on privacy and the legislation before us.
1342 We must consider the role that the law should play in this area. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester quoted extensively from Lord Ross and the minority report to the Younger Committee. However, I want to remind the House of the majority conclusion of that report. It stated:Privacy, however defined, embodies values which are essential to a free society. It requires the support of society as a whole. But the law is only one of the factors determining the climate of a democratic society"—and that refers back to the point raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short)—and it is often only a minor factor. Education, professional standards and the free interplay of ideas and discussion through the mass media and the organs of political democracy can do at least as much as the law to establish and maintain standards of behaviour.
§ Mr. Cash
My hon. Friend may recall that I quoted from the Younger report, which stated unequivocally that the committee had concluded merely that on balance—in 1972—there was no need, as it saw it, for a general right of privacy. That appears to be a different question from the one with which my hon. Friend is dealing.
§ Mr. Renton
I do not believe that that is right. I am conscious that my hon. Friend stressed in his speech the use of the word "yet" in the Younger committee report, and that is a word that I too, would use. I shall come back to that later.
The committee went on to say that it saw risks in placing excessive reliance on the law to protect privacy and that, subject to some specific recommendations aimed at giving the law its due place in the protection of privacy, it saw no need to extend it further. It argued, especially against including any general right of privacy in our domestic law. It based its argument—the degree to which this has changed is questionable—in large part on the uncertain scope and unpredictable implications of a general right of privacy. In our judgment, a further consideration must be whether the creation of a new statutory right is likely in practice to give satisfactory redress to those whose privacy has been infringed. That is a question which must concern supporters of the Bill on both sides of the House, because the one thing that they want to see is satisfactory redress for those whose rights have been infringed.
That matter takes us straight into the question of legal aid for privacy actions. Under the Bill, the normal arrangements for civil legal aid would apply. With great respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, I believe that his remarks were incorrect on that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) was right in his intervention. Legal aid is automatically available unless provisions are made to the contrary. It is a well-known fact, however, that legal aid is not available in defamation actions.
§ Mr. Browne
I understand that the Legal Aid Act 1988 enables the Lord Chancellor to extend legal aid to areas of the law by regulation. We should be pleased to see the Lord Chancellor do that. We are not precluding legal aid, but we have not included it in the Bill because we do not want to give officials the chance to hit it out of Parliament.
§ Mr. Renton
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend. I am not a lawyer any more than he is, but I know that the Lord Chancellor may, if he wishes, extend legal aid to categories that are currently exempted. Those apart, the normal 1343 arrangements for civil legal aid will apply unless specific provisions are made to the contrary, which is a different point.
Legal aid is not available in defamation actions, as litigation in that area can be expected to be—and certainly is—contentious and uncertain, and more likely than most other kinds of proceedings to prove trivial or ill-founded. Similar considerations might point to excluding legal aid from proceedings for breach of privacy under the Bill. Although the legal aid scheme seeks to exclude unmeritorious proceedings—that might be something else that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester had in mind—that is likely to prove especially difficult in actions for breach of privacy, and the availability of legal aid in such cases could be potentially expensive. We must recognise, therefore, that, as it stands, the Bill could have considerable resource implications because of the burden that it would impose on the legal aid fund, which was another point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies
Does my hon. Friend agree that, if contingency fees are introduced—contrary to the restrictive practices currently upheld by the two sides of the legal profession—they would go a long way towards solving the problem and ensuring that, if the Bill becomes law, every citizen will have redress irrespective of his means, so long as he can persuade a lawyer that he has a sufficiently good case to represent him on that basis?
§ Mr. Renton
My hon. Friend leads me down an interesting path. From my experience as a commercial man in the United States, I have great sympathy with the idea of contingency fees. The possibility of extending that principle to either libel or invasion of privacy actions has yet to be explored. I accept, however, that it is an interesting idea.
My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester and for Stafford were right to remind the House that, by enabling actions to he taken in the county courts, costs are likely to be a good deal less than they would be in the High Court where fees are higher and cases tend to take longer to resolve. But we would be misleading ourselves to pretend that the cost of actions even in the county court may not be a serious deterrent for many would-be litigants.
§ Mr. John Browne
Is my hon. Friend saying that serious consideration by the Government about whether they should offer the individual citizen protection before the law, which would fill a serious existing gap—protection already approved of by the Government as a consequence of their international obligations—could be precluded because it might, as my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) said, have financial implications? Is that a serious reason to think ill of the Bill?
§ Mr. Renton
I am just about to discuss the interface between privacy and other areas of the law, which so far has only been commented upon by the hon. Member for Hillhead. One could argue that if it were commonly agreed that legal aid should be available for privacy actions-as the Bill is currently drafted there would be legal aid for such actions—there is a consequential reason why that aid should also be available for libel actions.
1344 I shall explain what we see as the danger of legislating for privacy in isolation from other related areas of the civil law, in particular the link between privacy and breach of confidence and privacy and defamation.
Breach of confidence affords protection against the disclosure or use of information which is not publicly known and which has been entrusted to a person in circumstances imposing an obligation not to disclose or use it without the authority of the person imparting it. That action would therefore be available in some circumstances to which my hon. Friend's Bill would also apply. The Younger committee itself drew attention to 1he action for breach of confidence which it considered was potentially capable of affording greater protection to privacy than had hitherto been realised. The issue was subsequently referred to the English and Scottish Law Commissions, which have made proposals for changes to the existing law.
The interface between privacy and defamation is, in principle, yet more clear-cut. While my hon. Friend's Bill is concerned essentially with the disclosure of what is true, the essence of defamation is that it relates to statements that are both defamatory and false. But, that said, the injury inflicted by an invasion of privacy must bear a striking resemblance to the wrong for which a remedy is provided in the law of defamation. It is necessary therefore that the two should be considered in the same context. Proposals were made by the Faulks committee as long ago as 1975 for reforming the law on defamation but they have not found favour with successive Governments.
§ Mr. Cash
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be absurd if a trivial libel were allowed because of the libel law, but, by the same token, there was no law to prevent a gross invasion of privacy? My hon. Friend has no argument about whether there should or should not be legal aid, because nobody would be likely to argue that, merely because of legal aid, there is no need for a libel law.
§ Mr. Renton
I am making a different point. If we are to go down this path it is right that the interconnection between and consequences on the law of libel and the law on breach of confidence should also be considered. I am not arguing—I believe that this is what my hon. Friends have suggested—that until everything can be done, nothing should be done. The best may be the enemy of the good, but I am concerned that in considering a possible new cause of action without being able to relate it properly to existing remedies—which may themselves be capable of restatement and improvement—the result may be that we produce overlapping and inconsistent provisions.
The third general point concerns the difficult concept of privacy itself. One of the early chapters of the Younger report is entitled "What is Privacy?", but one does not have to read very far in the chapter to discover that the majority of the committee took the view that the concept of privacy cannot be satisfactorily defined. As the committee noted, attempts to do so either went very wide, equating the right to privacy with what Judge Cooley last century termed:the right to be left alone",or they boiled down to a catalogue of assorted values to which the adjective "private" or "personal" could reasonably, but not exclusively, be attached. Those who have sought in the past to legislate on the subject of privacy have varied considerably in the concepts of privacy for which they sought protection.
1345 Despite the short title of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has avoided any attempt to define privacy, but has based his proposed action on the unauthorised use or public disclosure of certain types of sensitive private information.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Is not the whole point of our law that a number of concepts, such as negligence, have been developed by the courts and that definitions that, over the course of time, reflect the wishes of the people at the particular period have been worked out by the courts? The same could happen with the definition of privacy.
§ Mr. Renton
I accept my hon. Friend's point. However, obscenity is not a good example for those in favour of the Bill because of the reasons for reaching definitions in court. I shall come to the question of the courts' ability to construe general concepts, such as privacy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has found it necessary to define related concepts such as private information, personal and public use and disclosure. I do not believe—with all respect to my hon. Friend—that one can entirely avoid in that way the central problem of defining what the scope of privacy should be. The Justice committee, from whose report my hon. Friend produced an eloquent quotation, expressed well the difficulties that beset any attempt to find a precise or logical formula to circumscribe the meaning of privacy or to define it exhaustively.
The Justice committee suggested two reasons why the task was so intractable.First and foremost the notion of privacy has a substantial emotive content in that many of the things which we feel the need to preserve from the curiosity of our fellows are feelings, beliefs or matters of conduct which are themselves irrational. Secondly, the scope of privacy is governed to a considerable extent by the standards, fashions and mores of the society of which we form part and these are subject to constant change".The Justice committee went on to suggest that one could identify a central area that consisted of certain matters which, at any given time, almost everyone would agree should be private and, therefore, protected from the intrusion of others. Surrounding that central area there was, it said, an outer grey area on which opinions would differ. But it had to admit that the extent both of the grey area and of the central area was bound to vary from time to time.
My hon. Friend would, I imagine, maintain that he has sought to do no more than give protection to specific matters of private information that would be generally agreed to form part of the central area identified by the Justice committee. But there is a further difficulty in his approach. Several categories of private information that his Bill identifies are themselves qualified by the word personal, such as personal communications, personal relationships, personal behaviour and personal financial affairs. Yet when we come to consider what is meant by the word "personal" in that context, the Bill tells us simply 1346 that it means by virtue of the private capacity of the individual. I have no better solution to suggest to my hon. Friend but the circularity of the argument is striking.
The balance between privacy and freedom of expression should properly greatly concern the House. Whatever the precise approach adopted for the purposes of legislation it is apparent that privacy cannot be an absolute right. As Younger said:A man's right to privacy has to be balanced against the rights of others; any additional protection which the law may afford to privacy may be found to impinge upon such other rights, in particular the right of free communication of the truth and comment upon it, which are generally accepted as of great importance in a democratic society.It is important to note that this balancing of rights is explicitly recognised in the European convention on human rights. Although article 8 of the convention to which my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester drew attention; says:everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence".article 10 must also be considered. It provides that:everyone has the right to freedom of expression". That right includes,freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.
§ Mr. Renton
Of course it is not. I am saying that article 10 must be read alongside article 8 because it is also in the convention.
§ Mr. John Browne
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way again. In the example of the United States the first amendment, not the fifth, sixth of seventh amendment of the constitution, provides for free speech and a free press. How is it that the United States can live with the privacy law when its first amendment also has to be balanced in the same way as article 8 and 10 in the convention?
§ Mr. Renton
I intend to deal with the position in the United States and in France and Germany about which my hon. Friend spoke earlier.
The House will agree that there is an inevitable tension between the individual's right of privacy and the right of a free press to investigate and report stories which are in the public interest. Clause 2(1) of the Bill recognises the fact that the public interest in securing the privacy of the individual may or may not be outweighed by the public interest in disclosure.
The question obviously arises as to who should decide whether the importance of a particular story should override personal privacy. Younger concluded that it was impossible to devise any satifactory yardstick for making such decisions, which had necessarily to be based on the circumstances of each case. The committee was in no doubt that the initial decision could be made only by those responsible for the publication, that is, by the press itself. The committee went on to consider whether, in performing this function, the press should be liable in case of complaint to be called to account by the courts acting under a law designed to protect personal privacy.
The difficulty that the committee saw, and which led it to reject this approach, was that judges would have to decide in each case between values which, in the abstract, might appear to have equal weight. The Committee thought that such a task would be likely to make the law 1347 uncertain, at least until the necessary precedents, covering a wide range of situations, had been established. It would also extend the role of the judiciary too far into determining controversial questions of a social and political character.
That leads me to the point about the ability of the courts to construe general concepts. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has sought to argue that reservations about the ability of the courts to determine matters of this kind are overstated, and that in practice the courts are frequently involved in balancing conflicting considerations such as these. In our view that overlooks the fact that questions of privacy will often involve a more complicated and subjective judgment than would be required in other contexts. The Younger committee put the point well when it said:Where in defamation cases a court has to decide what is or is not in the public interest, it is at least dealing with a situation in which a given statement is defamatory and untrue, and it is clear to the courts that such a statement will give rise to liability unless the defence of public interest is made out. But when for instance the right to privacy and the right to speak and publish the truth are in conflict, and no guidance is given on their relative importance, it is very doubtful whether a court is an acceptable arbiter on the issue of public interest involved".I doubt whether there has been much change in that position over the last 15 years. I might add that we already have a good deal of experience of the uncertainties which arise, for example, in obscenity cases, where the courts have to make judgments on controversial matters where statutory definitions are unclear or unsatisfactory and there is no consensus on the difficult social and moral issues that arise.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
It seems to me that my hon. Friend, throughout his argument, has been equating things that are untrue and therefore libellous with things that are true, but nevertheless extremely hurtful and quite unnecessary.
§ Mr. Renton
That point is made very clear in Germany. There is an interlapping between the law on libel, and the remedies that are available under that law, and similar remedies, that would be provided if we were to have a law against the intrusion of privacy. That is an important point for the House to consider if the Bill goes into Committee.
There is the further point that the law is likely to prove a clumsy instrument for handling all but the most extreme instances of breach of privacy, and we cannot necessarily assume that resort to the courts would be particularly frequent. While this may not in itself be a disadvantage, it could well be many years before a relevant case law was built up and, in the meantime, the uncertainty that would exist in the law might lead to serious inhibitions on freedom of communication. What would tend to happen, I suspect, is that writs would be issued with the object of preventing publication, followed subsequently by the settlement of actions out of court without any clarification of the law having taken place. In any case, as Younger again remarked, it isquestionable whether a topic which is subject to such rapid changes in social convention as privacy can suitably be regulated on the basis of case law, slowly built up, which would tend to reflect the values of an earlier period rather than of contemporary society.The Government share the reservations expressed by Younger about the risks of bringing the courts into these matters. While we would not necessarily go all the way 1348 with those who argued before the Younger committee that the potential cost of possible action for invasion of privacy would severely inhibit the press from proper reporting, neither do we believe that legislation would necessarily. in practice, foster an increased sense of responsibility by the press.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford who referred to the deterrent value of the proposals. On the contrary, there could well be a danger of journalists and editors abandoning any idea of self-discipline and of treating anything as acceptable provided that it did not actually render them liable to legal action. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester that the Bill contains a positive bias in favour of publication where the issue is finely balanced, but I continue to believe that we should be wary of any legislative initiative which might undermine our long-established tradition of press freedom. Newspapers do not of course always strike the right balance between liberty and responsibility, but a press which at times outreached the bounds of decent behaviour—a point made by the hon. Member for Hillhead—may be a price that we have to pay for freedom of speech.
For those reasons, I have to continue to believe that the present system of voluntary self-regulation through the Press Council, a system endorsed by successive Royal Commissions on the press, is a more effective and appropriate form of control than would be provided by legislative action. The council has been criticised as weak and ineffective—
§ Mr. Renton
My hon. Friend warmly endorses that criticism.
Certainly the concept of self-regulation has been under strain because of the attitude taken by some newspapers towards the council. No hon. or right hon. Member will deny that.
However, the council is concerned to improve its image and procedures. Sir Zelman Cowen, the council's former chairman, has been succeeded by Louis Blom-Cooper, who began work only this month, and whom we must all welcome to his challenging and difficult job. He has begun developing radical and imaginative ideas for reform. Mr. Blom-Cooper should be given the opportunity to make his influence felt, before we rush into action that could effectively undermine the future of press self-regulation.
I do not think that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton was right to say that Mr. Blom-Cooper implied that the time has come for the law to step in. On the contrary, Mr. Blom-Cooper pointed out, in a thoughtful article in The Times last Saturday:If only the Press would be prepared to make self-regulation work by co-operating more fully with the work of the Press Council, privacy Bills like Mr. Browne's would be unnecessary.—[Interruption.] The House must remember that Mr. Blom-Cooper has been chairman of the Press Council for only four weeks.
I shall touch briefly on the subject of overseas experience of privacy legislation, as I promised my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, that I would. He made the point, endorsed by other hon. Members, that it is nonsense to argue that there will be difficulties in introducing a right of privacy into British law, because a 1349 number of other countries have enjoyed such a right in their own legal systems for many years. France, Germany and the United States are frequently mentioned in that connection. Some critics go further and claim that our country is failing in its obligations under article 8 of the European convention on human rights in not introducing a corresponding provision into our own law.
I agree that we should pay close attention to the experience of other countries. However, it is well known that the method of adjusting domestic legislation to the requirements of international agreements differs widely beween signatory states, and that is particularly true of human rights. Younger identified two reasons why that is so. First, the committee pointed out that certain legal systems are readier than others to declare a general right and then leave to the courts the development of effective sanctions against violations of it. It may be simpler for countries with written constitutions to proceed in that way than it is for those such as Britain, without one.
The second relevant consideration for Younger was the extent to which existing laws in particular countries already provide sufficiently for the protection of the new right. Younger noted that in some countries where the law of defamation is less developed than it is here, new laws for the protection of privacy are used in cases that we regard as falling squarely within the ambit of defamation. In Germany, for example, the dividing line between privacy and defamation is very blurred.
We should not underestimate the considerable extent to which privacy is already protected by existing British law. It may be said that we already have what are, by international standards, very stringent laws of defamation, making it fairly risky to say anything, true of false, about someone who is prepared to resort to litigation to pursue his point.
So far, I have concentrated on general issues that must be addressed in connection with the Bill. None of them is necessarily decisive, but they all serve to explain why the Government have yet to be persuaded that creating a statutory right of action for breach of privacy is the proper course to take at present.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Morley and Leeds, South)
The Minister has made a declaration of neutrality. If the Bill is given a Second Reading and goes into Committee, where a number of matters will have to be cleared up, will the Government play a positive part? Will the Minister on the Committee point out the difficulties so that we can alter the Bill if necessary, or will this neutrality be maintained?
§ Mr. Renton
I rather hope that I may serve on the Committee. I intended to touch on the role that I would play in my final remarks—which, I assure the House, are getting nearer. I apologise for taking so long, but I have given way several times.
Although I should like to make a number of points, time is getting on and other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall mention only two aspects. First, the Bill applies to any unauthorised public use or public disclosure of private information. But public use and public disclosure are defined in clause 7 as relating to circumstances in which the material is made known simply to persons other than the individual to whom it relates. Two or more persons 1350 would apparently be sufficient, provided that the disclosure was made in the form of printed matter or broadcast material.
That leads on to the point that printed matter includes devices for automatic data processing, and could therefore catch material produced on a word processor, while broadcast material includes material reproduced by electronic means, and could therefore apply to the playing back of an audio cassette or tape recorder. The Bill could thus cover cases in which disclosure had in practice been made on a very limited scale, and had not been made public in the normal sense of the word.
Secondly, I think that there may be a problem with the requirement in clause 1 that proceedings must be brought by or on behalf of any person to whom the information relates. There may well be cases in which the distress, annoyance or embarrassment caused by the disclosure is suffered most acutely not by the person to whom the information relates but by a relative. In such cases, the aggrieved person would have no cause for action.
I have pointed out some of the issues on which the sponsors will need to concentrate if the Bill goes into Committee. Because, for the reasons that I have given, the Government are not yet persuaded of the need for such a Bill, I feel that despite the blandishments of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, the onus must be on him, not on me or my Department, to consider how the Bill can be improved to meet the points that I have mentioned.
As I have said, I do not intend to ask hon. Members to vote against Second Reading, despite my reservations about the Bill. We recognise the strength of feeling on these matters, and understand the widespread impatience in Parliament and the country for legislative action. Nevertheless the Bill as drafted poses significant problems. If the House decides to give it a Second Reading, we shall want to be satisfied at the end of the Committee stage that it can be made to work in a way that will not raise insuperable difficulties for the courts and those affected by it.
The Government's critics, be they political journalists or Members of Parliament, are fond of branding us foes of press freedom. We have been accused of wishing to censor newspapers, of designs to shackle civil liberties and of manufacturing cloaks of secrecy with the same speed and effectiveness as is deployed by Marks and Spencer in making socks or shirts. This debate should have punctured some of the extravagant assertions of those critics. I find it ironic that some of the hon. Members who have harried us most fiercely over our alleged concern for secrecy may today vote for a measure that will certainly define and limit the scope of investigative journalism.
The truth is that the Government start from the premise that we cannot have a free society without a free press.
§ Mr. Renton
From that it follows that any legislative curbs on newspapers and journalists—I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) will bear this in mind—should be imposed only after careful thought and only when a matter of overriding national interest is involved. That is why, in our Official Secrets Bill, we are removing the great majority of official information from the protection of the criminal law. That is also why, despite my sympathy for my hon. Friend's objectives, and 1351 despite the eloquent and persuasive speech that he has made, I must ask the House to consider carefully the pitfalls that lie along the road that he wishes us to tread.
§ Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)
We have just had 45 minutes of neutrality. It was akin to Mussolini's neutrality when he went to the aid of his pal, Adolph Hitler, at the start of the second world war.
I shall not weary the House with a detailed reply to the Minister of State's main points, which so unimpressed his hon. Friends. All I would say is that, as he knows very well, in areas such as nuisance, negligence and obscenity, juries can and do, every day of the week, on the basis of their common sense, take a view on the basis of the facts that are put before them. In none of these cases is there a detailed guide.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on enabling the House to debate this important topic, the wisdom of which is demonstrated by the unusually large turn-out of hon. Members.
I approach the Bill as both a journalist and a Member of Parliament. I have experience on both sides of the privacy fence. When I was on the Daily Mirrorsome years ago, I was sent to cover an accident in which twins had been killed in a playground accident. I drew the line at approaching either the parents or the relations, having got other aspects of the story, but because of that I was called to the office and given a wigging. Years later, my wife and I lost a baby in a cot accident. Although I was not then a Member of Parliament, a local journalist, under the guise of friendship, rang to express condolences and to ask for a photograph of the baby. We much resented that intrusion, and I do not doubt that all others in that position would do so as well.
There is no doubt that the excesses of the sewer Sun and other tabloids have reached such proportions in the quest for sensation and sleaze that action must now be taken, but we should be cautious about legislating on matters that affect the press. Whatever the justification, we should not legislate out of feelings of revenge. Even the sewer Sun seems to recognise the concern over the deliberate slide into profitable sleaze. It began a startling report on 17 January in mock reverential tones, not usually found in this rag. It crowed:The Sun is pleased to announce today the appointment of an ombudsman to act as an independent referee to hear and settle complaints by readers.The independence of Mr. Ken Donlan, the 61-year-old managing editor of the Sun, is clearly in no doubt. He is paid by the Sun, he works full time for the Sun—so that, of course, ensures his total independence.
I hope that there is no truth in the story that is going around that Mr. Donlan greeted his appointment with some such offensive words as, "I'm the man who's got to deal with all those whingeing, pinko poofters." If he did not say that, or words to that effect, I apologise, but they fit exactly into the language that the sewer Sun uses daily.
Mr. Rupert Murdoch, the proud proprietor of the Sun, greeted the appointment thus, and presumably with a straight face:Newspapers and journalists today face heavy responsibilities to preserve the freedom we all enjoy by living up to the best traditions of British journalism.That could have come stright from the mouth of the editor of the Daily Crucible in the "Hot Metal" series. It sounds 1352 all the more odd coming from Mr. Murdoch, given the vast sums in damages that his newspapers have had to hand over in the courts and elsewhere.
The Daily Mirror has had an ombudsman for four years. I tried to ring him yesterday. I was put through to the publisher's office, and, when I asked for the ombudsman, the person to whom I spoke grilled me on who I was and then asked, "Is he here?". "How do I know?", I replied. "Is he here for a meeting?", I was asked. "I have no idea.", I said, "He is the Daily Mirrorombudsman.". I was told, "Let me try another number.". Another number rang and I was back with Mr. Maxwell's office. We both laughed. There was a rustle of pages as telephone lists were consulted. Then I was told, "I only have an external number." I said, "What is an external number?", and I was told, "It is not an internal number; it is a home number.". I asked, "May I have it?". I was told, "I will check.". A moment later, back came the voice, "I have an idea, why don't you give me your number and I will ask him to ring you.". I asked, "But how can an ombudsman have a confidential number?". I was told, "It is the only one we have.".
I am still awaiting a call from theDaily Mirrorombudsman, and after this I doubt that I shall get one, so perhaps there is not much hope of help from ombudsmen, whatever they are, but the fact remains that they can come into operation only after the events which are complained about have taken place.
What about the Press Council? Even under the vigorous leadership of Louis Blom-Cooper, QC, there is little evidence yet of any lack of willingness or effort on the part, not of the Press Council, but of the newspaper proprietors in whose name and at whose behest the things about which everyone who has spoken today has complained are carried out. The Murdochs of this world have demonstrated that they will not comply with the Press Council now, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that they would welcome the Press Council having stronger powers.
The problem is that many tabloid owners and editors think that anything goes and, certainly in the case of the sewer Sun, have given themselves a licence to lie. No one is safe from the sewer Sun. Falklands war widows had words put into their mouths by a journalist who was subsequently appointed editor of one of Mr. Murdoch's newspapers. The victim of the Ealing rape had an alleged photograph of her smeared across the front page of that rag. The lorry driver, Terrance McCabe, was attacked by the Sun when he refused to cross the picket lines at Wapping, as the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) said. His previous spent convictions were continually carried as part of a vendetta by Sun journalists against small people who they know cannot hit or hurt them.
We should not be concerned only or mainly with ourselves or families. Every citizen should have a right to privacy and to keep private, their personal affairs. That is why I welcome the Bill in general as a step in that direction, although I believe that it has some flaws. We must not restrict or impede the responsible end of our press from its proper duties to reveal what the rich and powerful prefer to keep hidden.
I do not intend to quote from cases affecting right hon. and hon. Members for fear of giving them another run, except to say that many have been done over by the daily and Sunday tabloids, not for doing anything illegal or for engaging in activities which remotely could be considered 1353 to affect their ability to carry out their responsibilities as Members of Parliament, but purely for the sake of titillation cheap thrills, and voyeurism.
It also happens for another reason. Earlier, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) movingly told the House the reaction of some sections of the press when she put the question to the Prime Minister, on behalf of her voiceless hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), and saying that she had achieved her position only because she had received the help of a millionaire.
The Daily Mail, whose editor is ever loyal in recognition of the knighthood he received from the Prime Minister, went to work on my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South. The next day that newspaper ran a piece heavy with smear and innuendo. It said that my hon. Friend was nicknamed Red Dawn—I guess only by Mr. John Deans, the newspaper's political correspondent, under whose, I hope embarrassed, name that report appeared. It made much of the fact that my hon. Friend had been constituency secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) when he represented a Bristol constituency and revealed—shock, horror—that she was separated from her husband. For added spice, the newspaper told us that he had lost his job for allegedly taking a swing at the headmaster of the school in which he worked. The newspaper said that my hon. Friend shares a house in Bristol with another woman. The inference was clear, as were the newspaper's attempts to involve my hon. Friend's son.
What on earth have those issues to do with the question that my hon. Friend asked on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley?
A legitimate follow-up to the issue raised by my hon. Friend would have been for the Daily Mail and other newspapers to consider how my hon. Friend and other women Members achieve election and the extra and special problems that they face in this place.
Opposition Members know only too well how the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and, of course, the sewer Sun hound and villify elected trade union leaders and shop stewards who are involved in official legal disputes. Any tittle-tattle makes a good enough stick with which to beat them and seek to blacken their names. None of it has the remotest connection to the issues over which the strike or dispute is taking place.
It is the right of every citizen to have kept private the private aspects of their lives. The Bill, especially if amended, will help. We must clarify the question of legal aid. Without a clear entitlement to legal aid, only the well-heeled will be able to afford to take action and face the possibility of losing, and having to pick up crippling costs. Taking a case to a county court is not an attractive proposition because I understand that it is proposed to limit the amount of damages that can be awarded in the county court to £25,000.
I know that at least one of my hon. Friends grossly libelled by the Daily Mirror, I am sorry to say—had to back off from legal action because, apart from the certainty of success in the courts, he dared not risk action because he could not meet the costs that he would face if, however perversely, the jury went against him. That is an argument not against a jury but for legal aid.
1354 I can understand the hon. Member for Winchester wanting to protect the press from damages awarded by juries, but I believe that he has not addressed the problem correctly. In today's debate, many hon. Members have said that it is not the press that deserves or needs protection but the citizen, the man and woman in the street. Much of the press is rich and powerful and most citizens are not. Perhaps, though I doubt it, punitive damages would persuade the sleaze sheets to start cleaning up their act. Juries are made up of a random cross-section of women and men who are better able to reflect the hurt and harm caused by irresponsible publications and to award financial damages to match the seriousness of the offence. I accept that not all offences can be categorised, but this is a sector in which juries come into their own. On the basis of facts put before them and guidance on the law, they make such judgments every day.
We must not prevent responsible investigative journalism. I exclude Mr. Andrew Neil, who is editor of the Sunday Times, from that description following the report into the Thames Television programme, "Death on the Rock". Journalists should not be prevented from exposing people who hold high and influential positions. There is a place in journalism and democracy for some of the work done by publications such as Private Eye. The Bill acknowledges that fact and offers protection for the press through the public interest defence. No public interest defence or argument put before a jury will save the Murdochs of this world if they pray that in aid in the course of sleaze.
No responsible editor or journalist has anything to fear from the Bill, which I hope will be given a Second Reading so that we can improve it in Committee.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
The Bill is a long overdue reform of the relationship between the press and people. Our great nation has always nurtured and defended its freedom carefully. Since the time of Caxton, printers have sought further freedom to publish freely held opinions, and even subversion, but above all they have sought freedom to uncover wickedness, depravity and injustice in public life. One has only to cast one's mind back over the history of John Wilkes and the gagging writs to remember how that freedom has been fought for and cherished. I do not believe that the Bill will introduce the concept of a gagging writ. It is a mark of a free society that we have a free and unfettered press. One of the newest and most glaring developments in modern Russia has been the rash of free-thinking and critical articles that have appeared under glasnost and perestroika.
The debate must move from the relationship of the press to the Government establishment to that between the press and the individual. The most important and powerful media of reporting in the 20th century is television. Among newspapers, the most revealing items have been conveyed by photograph. The camera did not exist in the formative centuries when the concept of a free press was developed. The camera can be very revealing—we are told that it never lies, except when in the hands of a dictator or in the strange magnetic conditions of the rock of Gibraltar. The camera has become the instrument most complained about in our press of today. One need only cast one's mind back to the publication by one tabloid newspaper of a picture of a heavily pregnant princess on a 1355 beach taken by an ultra-powerful telescopic lens to understand the problem. What was newsworthy about that incident? It was widely known that the princess was pregnant. Further, it was known that she was on holiday. What else but a prurient curiosity was satisfied by the photograph?
To move the focus from the rich and supposedly famous, what of the photography of families in the north-east who were grieving over the loss of relatives on Piper Alpha? What of the villagers of Lockerbie who were unable to contain their grief, yet at the same time were met as they carried on their ordinary business by a solid wall of cameramen? In those cases people suffered grotesquely as a result of intrusive press reporting. It is unfortunate that whenever a figure of even moderate public standing is reported for a minor misdemeanour it is apparently obligatory for his or her family to be subjected to what is known in the trade as door-stepping. We readily agree with the concept of press freedom, but we have a right to qualify it when it involves innocent people having to hide indoors for days with the curtains drawn.
There is no right of privacy in this country. However, we are signatories to the European convention on human rights. The Minister made much of article 8 of the convention and my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) explained that that article should be read in conjunction with article 10 and we must try to achieve a balance. We know that article 8 states:Everyone has a right to respect for his private and family life, his home and correspondence.I thought that the Minister said that those were cogent reasons why we should not enact something analogous to article 8 into English law, yet we know that we already protect under our law the freedom enshrined in article 10. If the Minister was referring to balance, I would agree with him. However, why are not articles 8 and 10, and even the whole European convention on human rights, enacted into English law? I have argued in the House that the rights of children and parents in the European convention on human rights should be enacted in English law. I am happy to repeat that request for the House to consider in future.
It is particularly strange that in the present circumstances those rights are available to Englishmen, Scotsmen and Irishmen if they go to the European Court of Human Rights after having exhausted the English legal system, but those rights are not available in English courts. The provisions cannot be enforced in our law courts. They are meaningless and that is a bad indictment of our much-prized legal system.
The Minister also referred to the interface between defamation and privacy. The formative case in the law of defamation is that of Princess Youssoupoff and Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Lord Justice Slesser set a two-part test in that case which states:not only is the matter defamatory if it brings the plaintiff into hatred, ridicule or contempt by reason of some moral discredit … but also if it tends to make the plaintiff be shunned or avoided.The second part of the test was that the allegation must be untrue. The Minister and others have said that the damage of defamation is the same as the damage of privacy, but that is not quite right.
Let us consider the test set by Lord Justice Slesser. He said that a comment must be untrue. That is the distinguishing feature in defamation. He said damage applies if the plaintiff is brought 1356into hatred, ridicule or contempt by reason of some moral discredit.Why cannot the same test be introduced into the law of privacy? He also said:if it tends to make the plaintiff be shunned or avoided.It has always been a feature of our English legal system that there must be damage before one can recover in the courts. If there is publication of something that a person did lawfully in his own home, but which in some way is unusual—perhaps very unusual or perhaps a particularly colourful previous sex life—it is not unreasonable to suggest that it might make the plaintiff he shunned or avoided. There is clear damage there and I do not see why there should not be some provision, perhaps through an amendment in the Bill, for compensation.
Some of my hon. Friends have told me that they will vote against the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North is one. They claim to be libertarians, but that means allowing people free rein so long as their activities are not dangerous to, or do not inhibit the freedom of others. The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) referred to the test of Oliver Wendell Holmes about the use of a fist. If a man in public life has an unusual or exciting sex life, why should that be referred to publicly?
The point that I would have made—but for the assistance of my hon. Friends—when I interrupted the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) was that what is of interest to the public about the hon. Member is his competence as a Member of this House. Whatever he may have done in the past, whatever his bank balance or whatever the other features of his life, as long as they do not affect his competence to sit in the House and make decisions on behalf of the public, it is of no interest to the rest of us what he may have done in his own time—on the Greek islands or anywhere else. Good luck to him, because I am sure that, if the spotlight were turned, most of the population would come in the same category.
It may be that these matters are of interest to the public because of its natural lurid curiosity, but are they in the public interest? That is what this Bill deals with. My submission would be that they may have been of public interest but they are not in the public interest. From our post bags, we know that individuals can live the most exotic private lives, but that is not reported, because they are not famous cricketers, union bosses or politicians.
The hon. Member for Hillhead commented on bank balances. One of the most competent and revered Prime Ministers in the history of this country was Disraeli. Yet it is well known from his biographies that he avoided bankruptcy on a number of occasions by the skin of his teeth. It did not, however, make him any worse a Prime Minister. The knowledge of what was in his bank balance, in fact, may have been damaging to him during his career. Is not the man with a massive overdraft—which is publicly known—more prone to bribery and corruption? Is not the man who is extremely rich and has a colossal bank balance in danger of being kidnapped or of suffering other extortionate practices? Barely a week goes by without a new victim of this intrusive curiosity being publicly shamed. The retiring chairman of the Press Council admits to feelingsick at heart when I read yet another revelation which exposes people to great hurt.Even newspapers know in their hearts that often they go too far. The former editor of The Star, Mr. Lloyd Turner, said in December: 1357We have gone too far and I include myself in that. When I was at The Star I did go too far. That was a mistake.We know and the press know that that evil exists. The Press Council knows it, but, being a toothless paper tiger, it can do nothing about it.
I shall return to the photograph of the Princess of Wales on the private beach. When the Press Council condemned that photograph and the Sun for photographing it, the Sun republished it under a banner headline, which said:This is what the row's all about folks.What greater contempt can anyone show for the powers, or supposed powers, of the Press Council? For their part the public condemn the press for going too far. The Press Council and its supposed powers are relatively unknown to the public. Louis Blom-Cooper QC, who has just taken over as chairman of the Press Council, said last year in a telling remark:To any extent that people have any view of the Press Council, it will be highly coloured and culled from one rather inaccurate press report.Is that not a telling comment that by implication even the Press Council regards most press reports as being inaccurate?
In answer to what my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) said about Mr. Blom-Cooper's views on legislation, I must tell him that an article in The Daily Telegraph in May 1988, made it clear that Mr. Blom-Cooper did not regard the need for legislation as inherently objectionable. The Government have expressed their dissatisfaction, too. My hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Department said in February last year that, if the press did not regulate itself satisfactorily, the Government might consider how proper standards could be enforced.
The only reason that I could divine from the Minister's speech today against the introduction of such standards is that it would be legally complicated. The concept of negligence was legally complicated and many lawyers thought that it was far too difficult to define until the leading case of Donaghue v. Stevenson. The law on that ethereal concept of negligence has been derived from a series of common law decisions from that day to this. Negligence is now one of the greatest areas of the law of tort.
Although I welcomed what my hon. Friend said in February, I do not believe that it is a proper role for the Government to control the press. I agree with the Labour Members that such control would be sinister. It is the proper role of the House, as representative of the people, to seek to control the excesses of the press in the interest of the public. Other free societies, such as France and the United States, have privacy laws, and I see no reason why such laws should not be introduced in Britain. The Minister signally failed to answer that point when it was raised earlier and he passed over it quickly in his speech.
The only difficulty that I can foresee is that of legal definition. As the Minister has said, some time may be needed for the law of precedent to be established. The way in which the Bill is drafted, however, could do a great deal to assist the law of precedent. In that context I shall quote the words of a leading and distinguished Queen's counsel, for whom I have the highest regard, Richard Alexander, who said:The strongest criticism of any suggested law of privacy has invariably been that such a law would be too vague and 1358 leave too much to the discretion of the judges. I always thought that this view underestimates the ability of the Common Law to develop both purposively and with common sense. The law of confidence, evolved to cover situations as different as commercial secrets and information held by members of the security services, is judge-made law.In some countries and in much of North America, a right of privacy exists. Some 20 years ago now, I was sent to observe a case in Paris where a claim was brought against an English newspaper for breach of the droit d'intimité. Photographers using telephoto lenses had taken photographs of Brigitte Bardot in her private garden. In pursuing her complaint, her advocate eloquently declared: 'Unlike General de Gaulle, my client has not given herself to the nation.' He established that she had the right to private life and recovered damages.We, by contrast, have no law which would allow redress if, for example, an aeroplane flew low over a house and thus enabled photographs to be taken of people pursuing their private lives. Yet our judges could shape the development of such a law in just the same way as the French judges can set the boundaries of droit d'intimité … This Bill may well be capable of improvement, or may need some amendment; but the principles it seeks to protect should now become part of our law.Lord Ross said in his minority report to the Younger committee:With all respect to my colleagues I find these reasons"—about uncertainties in the law—singularly unconvincing. In the first place uncertainty in the law is not unusual.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I put it to the hon. Gentleman that he is damaging the possibility of the Bill reaching Committee because of the way in which he is conducting himself. I ask him to resume his seat.
§ Mr. Devlin
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice because he is a distinguished and elder parliamentarian. I am about to draw my remarks to their rightful close and I shall do so in the next few seconds.
The common law of England is, as it always has been, capable of adapting to and defining new concepts. If my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) will allow me to offer advice to him, I will gladly serve on the Committee. I support the Bill and I ask the House to give it a Second Reading.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I want to address my remarks specifically to the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) because it may be that the future of the Bill rests uniquely in his hands. I intend to speak only for a couple of minutes. I have reservations about the Bill because of my contact with journalists, with whom the hon. Member for Derby, North may also have contacts. I am concerned about the way in which injunctions can be used to prevent journalists from carrying out their legitimate activities. I have discussed the matter with lawyers and they conclude that there are conditions in which stories may be lost. The problem is that although, on one hand, I want to defend the interests of those journalists, I realise, that there is abuse. We must draw a balance and the only way in which we can establish that balance is in Committee. If the Bill goes into Committee, I shall vote against it, as will the hon. Gentleman, but I want the Bill to go to Committee because no damage will be done by that. It will merely help us to establish where we believe the balance should be.
I shall resume my seat after making one request. The hon. Gentleman may rise to his feet in a minute and he can, 1359 in effect, talk out the Bill. If he does that, he will deny people such as myself and others who have reservations about the Bill the opportunity to promote the important debate that will inevitably take place in Committee. The hon. Gentleman knows that there is an element of public concern and he knows that there is an element of concern in the journalistic profession, but let us be given the opportunity to consider these matters. There are many further stages at which we can destroy the Bill if we wish. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if all my concerns about press freedom are not met, I shall be among those who wish to destroy the Bill. However, the hon. Gentleman is in the unique position today to be able to destroy it. I, together with most hon. Members, appeal to him not to do that and to let us at least be given the opportunity to examine the whole subject in Committee.
§ Mr. Greg Knight (Derby, South)
It was odd that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) should make such comments. I seem to recollect that, when I was here some time ago to support the Licensing (Amendment) Bill, he spoke at such considerable length that several of my hon. Friends came to the conclusion that he was filibustering, but I did not seek to say that he was acting in a way that was out of order. I am sure that if you, Madam Deputy Speaker, feel that I am out of order at any time you will bring me to heel.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I accept that the matter raises strong feelings among many hon. Members, but I hope that he will accept that there are differing views about what—if anything—should be done and how the press should be regulated. So far in the debate, we have heard only one speech setting out the case against the Bill, which was made by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). I have several points to make that should be placed on record to explain why I do not want the House to proceed with the Bill.
§ Mr. Neil Hamilton
May I suggest that if my hon. Friend has many points, he votes for the Bill today so that he will have more time, in Committee, to develop them.
§ Mr. Knight
I am also aware that there are hon. Members who do not want the Bill to go to Committee because of other Bills further down the line, but I am not here for that reason. I am here because I disagree with the Bill. It is a bad Bill and I cannot see any way to make it work, even if it were amended in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) spoke for 38 minutes outlining why we should support the measure, so it is only fair for the House to listen to my speech. I am not saying that I shall speak for 38 minutes—and, in fact, I do not have that time—but the case against the Bill deserves to be expounded today.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester on his success in the ballot, but I qualify those congratulations. He was twelfth in the ballot last year and I believe that the time has come for the House to examine its procedures and to consider whether perhaps, an hon. Member who comes in the top 20 should be disqualified the following year so that other hon. Members have a fair chance. My congratulations to my hon. Friend are also qualified because, as I have said, I cannot support the Bill.
1360 I have nothing personal against my hon. Friend and he may recollect that I warmly supported the Bill that he introduced last year and which got through both Houses.
The matter of privacy has a long history. The Minister spoke about 1961 when the late Lord Mancroft introduced his measure. Similar measures were introduced by Alex Lyon in 1967 and by Brian Walden in 1969. The important point about the Brian Walden Bill was that it led to the setting up of a Committee on privacy under the chairmanship of the late Sir Kenneth Younger. That Committee reported in 1972.
Some hon. Members seem to have had difficulties in fully appreciating all the arguments, and that is due to the difficulty of obtaining the Younger report. I went to the Library and found that the report, which is Cmnd. 5012, was published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office. I made inquiries at the Vote Office and was told that the report was long out of print. It took me some time to track down a copy. Initially, I was told that the Library did not have a copy, but then I found that it had one copy which, I understand, is kept in a brown paper bag out of sight of hon. Members because the Library is afraid of losing it. It does us no credit that hon. Members have to spend time in the Library photocopying a long document so that they may consider all the points that are relevant to the debate. The one positive side of this debate is that we now appreciate that where an unresolved issue has gone on for many years the Vote Office should keep some available copies of any Command Papers so that hon. Members can avail themselves of the evidence that was considered in the past.
Although 17 years old, the Younger report, as I think my hon. Friend the Minister said, is the only substantial report about an examination of the law on privacy in Britain. Therefore, the House is entitled to ask what that. committee said about the matter. My hon. Friends the Members for Winchester and for Stafford (Mr. Cash) skimmed over the majority comments in that report, preferring to quote from the minority report.
§ Mr. Knight
I shall come to that. I accept what my hon. Friend says. He did quote a paragraph from the conclusion. However, he did not go into the general thrust of the Younger report. All the way through, the report warns about the risks of placing excessive reliance on the law to protect privacy, especially with regard to the press. The committee argued against any general right of privacy in our domestic law, and the House is entitled to ask why it did that.
The report said that a general right of privacy would be uncertain in scope and would have unpredictable implications. That is exactly the position with this Bill. The House has to decide who is right—my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester or the compilers of the Younger report. We are entitled to examine whether the Younger report was as thorough as it should have been. In paragraph 6, page 2 of the report, there is a call for evidence. It says:Once our terms of reference had been clarified, we issued invitations for evidence: to the public at large by advertising extensively in 44 national and regional newspapers,".Page 3 of the report says:As a result of suggestions from various quarters the list of addresses of this letter was eventually increased to a total of 225,".1361 I did not hear my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester speak about having undertaken that sort of research. It is all very well to refer to opinion polls and to say that 60 per cent. of people think that something should be done. I hazard a guess that many of those who were approached and gave answers in the opinion poll are the very people who buy some of the newspapers about which we have heard—the Sun and the Daily Mirror. Because of the circulation figures of those newspapers that must be so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred to the committee's conclusion. He is quite right that the committee said:We have concluded that, on balance, there is no need at present for a general law of privacy.My hon. Friend was not entirely fair to the committee's view, therefore, when he sought to take that to mean that, if the committee had reported last week, it would have reached a different conclusion. He cannot say that on the evidence because, throughout the report, the committee made it clear that it felt that the best way of dealing with the press was not by legislation, but by effective self-regulation.
That brings me to the point that a number of hon. Members have made about self-regulation. Although I oppose the Bill, I do not claim that there is no problem. Of course, there is a problem. Hon. Members have referred to cases involving disaster victims, the separation of spouses and bereaved families who find their pictures plastered across newspapers and are interviewed on television. There is a particularly odious form of television interviewing technique. When the person who is being interviewed shows signs of distress, the interviewer will suddenly stop and say nothing. The instinct of a person who is not accustomed to being interviewed in front of a television camera is to go on, so his or her distress becomes worse. I remember seeing a documentary on television four or five years ago in which that technique, which I deplore, was used. The person was encouraged by the interviewer's silence to open up, the distress became worse and the interview ended in tears. More can therefore be done in the area of self-regulation.
My next point was raised by some Opposition Members. I have little sympathy for flamboyant and outrageous characters, particularly in the pop music business, who make a point of exploiting their eccentricities and then cry foul when the press starts to pry into their private lives. People who behave in that way and are in public life forgo the privacy that we all hope and expect to see applied to the private individual.
I do not oppose all change. Some action is necessary. The House is entitled to hear what I think is the answer to the problem. We should be considering a sensible and reasoned way to put matters right. Legislation should not be the first and only option; there are others.
Let us consider the Press Council. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) shouted out, "It is a joke" when my hon. Friend the Minister referred to the Press Council. That caused much laughter among Conservative Members. I do not entirely disagee with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes. The council has been ineffective in some areas and certain things can be done, but let us consider what is now happening to the Press Council. In an article in The Observer of 22 January this year, under the heading 1362Press Council set for big shake-up",the media editor, Richard Brooks, said:A complete overhaul of the Press Council, including a two-thirds cut in membership and an ombudsman for national and regional newspapers, is being proposed by its new chairman, Louis Blom-Cooper.Newspaper groups themselves would bear the onus of dealing with grievances under the radical plans Mr. Blom-Cooper will present next Tuesday at his first meeting as the council's chairman.It is incorrect to infer that the Press Council is useless and that nothing is being done. Something will be done next week. Some hon. Members would say that the House should give the Press Council one last chance. Well, it should certainly be given a chance now that it has a new chairman to see whether his radical ideas can improve the situation.
The report goes on to say thatMr. Blom-Cooper wants working journalists, rather than managers, to serve on the council. He also believes he should choose council members himself rather than rely on the traditional outside appointments body.That is welcome news. The House should wait to see the result. One Opposition Member made a jocular comment about the appointment of the Sun's own ombudsman. I realise that the Opposition holds strong views about the Sun, but they should wait for the outcome of that development. I have more faith in the Sun than they do, and I do not believe that it is a window dressing exercise.
Earlier, in one of my interventions, I was taken to task by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) because I referred to article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester also made great play about article 8 and how it supported his Bill. I thought it only right to place on record that article 10 provides a right of freedom of information.
I doubt the wisdom of legislating in the area of privacy alone. If the law is to be changed, what about defamation? A bit-by-bit, jigsaw approach is not the best way of proceeding. We may agree that improvements must be made, but that is not the issue today. The question is whether the Bill is the right vehicle. It should be rejected because not only is it the wrong vehicle but it is incapable of improvement in Committee to the extent that it will avoid several pitfalls that I shall explain to the House.
First, I am surprised that no Opposition Member spotted that clause 1 of the Bill provides thatproceedings may be brought by any person"—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd)
Order. A number of conversations are under way, which shows great discourtesy to the hon. Gentleman who has the Floor.
§ Mr. Knight
I am grateful for your protection, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not regard my right hon. and hon. Friends' conversations as a discourtesy, as I believe they were considering and mulling over my earlier points. As I said, I am surprised that no right hon. or hon. Member has spotted the fact that clause 1—
Mr. John Browne rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 98, Noes 1.1363
|Division No. 59]||[2.27 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Alexander, Richard||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Allen, Graham||Hunter, Andrew|
|Anderson, Donald||Janner, Greville|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Jessel, Toby|
|Banks, Robert (Harrogate)||Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Kirkhope, Timothy|
|Barron, Kevin||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Beggs, Roy||Leighton, Ron|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Livingstone, Ken|
|Bowis, John||McCrindle, Robert|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Macdonald, Calum A.|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||McWilliam, John|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Maginnis, Ken|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Maples, John|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Moate, Roger|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Nelson, Anthony|
|Cohen, Harry||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Corbett, Robin||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Richardson, Jo|
|Couchman, James||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Critchley, Julian||Ruddock, Joan|
|Crowther, Stan||Short, Clare|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Sims, Roger|
|Devlin, Tim||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dobson, Frank||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Dunnachie, Jimmy||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Dykes, Hugh||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Fishburn, John Dudley||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Forman, Nigel||Summerson, Hugo|
|Fox, Sir Marcus||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Fry, Peter||Thorne, Neil|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Gordon, Mildred||Tracey, Richard|
|Gorst, John||Tredinnick, David|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Ward, John|
|Greenway, John (Ryedale)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Winnick, David|
|Hannam, John||Worthington, Tony|
|Hardy, Peter||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Mr. William Cash and|
|Holland, Stuart||Mr. Michael Brown.|
|Bottomley, Peter||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Mr. Greg Knight and|
|Mr. George Galloway.|
§ Whereupon Mr. Speaker declared that the Question was not decided in the affirmative, because it was not supported by the majority prescribed by Standing Order No 36 (Majority for closure, or for proposal of question).
§ It being after half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.