HC Deb 23 January 1991 vol 184 cc430-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. John M. Taylor.]

11.5 pm

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

All hon. Members are aware that parts of the British press have behaved so badly in recent years that Bills supporting the right to reply and the legal right to privacy have gained great favour in the House. As a result, the Government set up the Calcutt committee, which recommended that the Press Council should be replaced by the strengthened Press Complaints Commission. Both the Calcutt report and the Government have said that, if self-regulation does not work, it should be replaced by a statutory tribunal, with statutory powers, implementing a statutory code of practice.

I should like to share with the House my experience of how these new arrangements are working. Members will be aware that Patricia Chapman, the editor of the News of the World, is a member of the new commission—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Shame."]—established, I understand, on 1 January. I want to tell the House what she has been trying to do to me.

First, I set out the background. On 12 March 1986 I introduced a Bill to remove from our newspapers pornographic pictures of women. I believe that such pictures degrade women and newspapers and set the tone for some of the most shameful and objectionable parts of our newspaper tradition. The Murdoch tabloids did not like the Bill. That resulted in a campaign of vilification against me in The Sun. Stories appeared about "Crazy Clare", "Killjoy Clare", and 20 things you ought to know about Crazy Clare", accompanied by a succession of ugly photographs and invitations to readers to write in, freepost, to "stop crazy Clare" and to send for car stickers to "stop crazy Clare". The paper sought to portray me as an ugly harridan, a killjoy woman.

After some years the campaign fizzled out. Action then moved to the News of the World, The Sun's sister paper. The direction of the campaign changed, too. On 10 December 1990, a story appeared headlined Labour's lovelies—Ad in Clare's paper that thrilled Grandad —fine English, Members will agree. The story was accompanied by an extremely ugly photo of me and by two large old-fashioned pornographic photos. The story was that Tribune, a weekly Labour party paper, had carried a small advertisement suggesting that people send for grandad's naughty pictures". That was all. The story could have been aimed at any member of the Labour party, including its leader.

I saw the story, did not like it but knew that it was ridiculous, and did nothing. Then, on 28 October 1990, a second story appeared, with another ugly photo of course. The headline was: Anti-porn MP's ex-aide quizzed over porn! The article claimed that a woman who had worked for me on my "page three" Bill had been raided in connection with pornographic videos. That was a lie. The paper did not check the facts.

Instead, I received a phone call on the Saturday morning before the paper appeared, just before leaving for my constituency advice bureau. The caller was a woman who said that she was a freelance reporter who needed my help. She said that I was her last chance. She wanted, she said, to contact someone who had worked for me and my husband and she asked if I could possibly help. I said that I was sorry but that I had not seen the person for years and had no idea where she was. The caller then said that a woman had been raided in connection with pornographic videos. I said that I knew nothing about that. She then asked what I thought about it. I said that this was getting silly, that I did not understand what she was doing, that she had asked my help but I could not give it and that I had to go to my advice bureau. I then put the phone down.

The story appeared and quoted me as saying I haven't seen her for some time. I don't know where she is living. It went on to say: Then she slammed the phone down. Note the change in my words from "haven't seen her for years" to "haven't seen her for some time", a necessary distortion of the very little that I had said, not in answer, of course, to the basic question that needed to be asked, so that an untrue story could be carried.

The woman concerned had years ago worked for a number of hon. Members. She had worked for my husband for a time before he lost his seat in the 1983 election. I was elected and I took her on to prevent her from being unemployed, but it did not work out, she left of her own volition after a short time and I have not seen or heard of her since. If the News of the World had bothered to ask, I could have told it so. It did not, because it would have ruined its false story.

I decided then—at the end of October—that this was too much. Two stories had appeared, in effect suggesting that I was a pornographer and therefore a hypocrite. The direction of the smear had changed—no longer "Killjoy Clare" but "Pornographer Clare". I decided that I should take action this time. I complained to the Press Council, I wrote to the paper, and I made an official complaint to the police.

I made the complaint to the police because the source of the story was a letter found by the police during the course of a raid, quite a proper raid—I do not know much about it but I assume that it was a proper raid—on this woman. The letter dated back to the period when she had worked for me and was completely unconnected with the criminal investigation, but some police officer had passed it to the News of the World.

I received a kind and helpful reply from Commander Richard Monk, head of the obscene publications squad at New Scotland Yard: Although we have not met, I know of your strong support for the work we do against pornography and especially child sex abuse, and I was sorry to receive it. He said that he had put the investigation in hand and went on: Meanwhile I can only offer my annoyance that a newspaper has treated such a piece of irrelevant information in such an unfair way and my own keen interest to have the source of the information identified if at all possible. I also got a small apology in the News of the World, with a less ugly photo than usual.

But now, after that, it seems that the News of the World is angry with me for complaining, and wishes to smear and belittle me further. On 10 January 1991 I got a phone call from a very good friend in Leeds. She had been contacted by a man whom I had married when I was 18, when we were both students. The marriage ended 20 years ago. John Chapman—I suggest that all hon. Members will remember the name; I have never met this man but he is the one who goes for the grot, and I presume that if someone gets in a room with him that person is in danger of catching a disease associated with sewage—of the News of the World had been to see my ex-husband, asking about our marriage, how it had ended and what I had done afterwards. Questions had been asked with horrendous, deeply hurtful, unbelievable and completely false implications. Had he any "naughty" photographs of me? Photos of me in a nightdress were discussed. Five thousand pounds was firmly offered and the possibility of as much as £20,000 was discussed. I know the photos. They are not improper, but I would find it terrible to see them published in the News of the World.

As hon. Members may imagine, I was pretty upset by this. I was told that the story was to be run the following Sunday. I lived in horror until then. Then they suggested the next Sunday—and so it goes on. I prefer to tell my story here tonight.

I should also explain that I have been aware for some time that members or ex-members of the West Midlands serious crimes squad have been pushing a story about me to the press. I know this because a number of journalists have telephoned me to warn me. They said that it was clearly not a story but was an attempted smear. They had no intention of touching it but thought that I ought to know. I wondered what I should do about it, but decided that there was nothing that I could do and that I should rely on the decency of journalists and their code of conduct —I reckoned without Patricia Chapman, the News of the World and Mr. John Chapman.

The House may be aware that in an Adjournment debate on 25 January 1989 1 raised the case of my constituent Paul Dandy who had been charged by the serious crimes squad with a very serious offence. He had spent nearly a year in prison and in that time had attempted to commit suicide. The case against him had collapsed in court when it had been demonstrated forensically that his confession, on which the charge relied, had been fabricated: his statement to the police had been rewritten and the confession inserted. His lawyers contacted me because they were dissatisfied at the way in which his complaint against the police had been handled. They also put me in touch with other lawyers who provided evidence of similar malpractice in other cases. They all told me that such malpractice was widespread in the West Midlands serious crimes squad. I thought that I should bring such a serious matter to the attention of the House.

My speech received a good deal of coverage and later, after other cases had collapsed in court, the squad was disbanded, a major investigation is taking place into the work of the squad, and a number of other cases are being taken back to court and men who were wrongly convicted released from prison. What I said in my Adjournment debate has proved to be true, and I invite hon. Members to read the debate.

I should make it clear, because this is part of the News of the World attempted smear, that my action to deal with problems in one small unit of the West Midlands police force does not interfere with the very good relationship that I have with my local police force, which is very helpful when I approach it on behalf of constituents. In Ladywood, as elsewhere, we need the protection of our local police. They and I have worked together on many cases and issues in order to ensure that local people are properly protected from crime.

Following my speech, various people in Birmingham, in shops and in the street, stopped me to say that they thought that I was right to say what I said. More than one said that I should be careful and to drive and go carefully in case the squad tried to get back at me. I was grateful for their concern but did not believe that such a thing would happen. I was wrong.

The story that ex-squad officers have been pushing to the press and in which the News of the World is primarily interested concerns a close friendship that I had with a man in the early 1970s when I was working in the Home Office and was positively vetted by the British security services. The man concerned was Afro-Caribbean. That may seem terrible to the News of the World and to ex-members of the serious crimes squad, but I should tell them that I grew up in Handsworth and that 40 per cent. of my constituents are Afro-Caribbean or Asian. Throughout my life large numbers of my friends have been black. I consider that to be good and a good part of my life and not a matter for a smear in the News of the World.

The man concerned lived in my house in Birmingham for some years. That may seem steamy to the News of the World, but in that house also lived two of my sisters, one of my brothers, a Chilean refugee couple, an American writer, some architecture students and others. They did not all live there at the same time. It was not that big a house, but it was a happy house and we were all good friends.

The man in whom the News of the World is interested later went to live abroad and, of course, I completely lost touch with him. In 1979 he apparently came back to Birmingham and was killed in a shooting in a car. The West Midlands police and, I now realise, the serious crimes squad investigated the murder. Officers came to see me when I was at work as the director of Youthaid in 1979. I told them all that I knew, and that was the end of it. They also called on everyone who knew him. One of my brothers whom they also went to see said that the police commented on the large number of nice friends that he had.

Many people can testify to this man's character at that time. He was known and liked by many good people. The News of the World has suggested in a letter to my solicitor that this man had some very serious previous convictions. I do not know whether that is true. I am tempted to say that, coming from the News of the World, it probably is not, but perhaps it is. I assume that everyone can now see the sort of story that the News of the World plans to write and the new direction of the smear that it wishes to throw at me. I can only say that neither I nor any of that man's other friends was aware of such convictions or know the reasons for his death. He is not alive to answer for himself, and I understand that the person who killed him has never been found.

My husband of 25 years ago was at first intrigued by the News of the World approach and played it along a little. He was kind enough afterwards to contact me and give me a full account of everything that was said. I know that my ex-husband now feels deeply aggrieved by what took place. He believes that the conversation was tape recorded, although he insisted that it be confidential. He now understands that the News of the World was using him to get at me. He feels aggrieved that his privacy was so seriously invaded because, in order to use him to get at me, the newspaper had quite improperly gone through all sorts of private details of his life.

My solicitor has complained to the News of the World about the offer of money for photographs and about some of the newspaper's most awful questions. The News of the World has denied both matters. I have to say, "They would, wouldn't they?" It is quite impossible for any reasonable person who hears the whole story to believe the News of the World denial, but the editor of the News of the World has to pretend, because of her place on the Press Complaints Commission, that the paper did not do such things.

I should like to mention one other matter about my life. I do not want to talk in the House about my personal life, but as the News of the World appears to be planning to print a distorted account of my whole life, I prefer to tell the House the truth.

Many Members of this House remember with affection my husband Alex Lyon. They often send good wishes to him through me. Some hon. Members know that he is terribly ill and that I am doing my best to look after him as well as do my job as a Member of Parliament. I think, although I cannot be certain because he cannot explain things clearly to me, that the News of the World has been to see him. He kept talking about some man who had called. I suspect, but I may be wrong, that it was the News of the World.

I must ask the News of the World not to seek to smear and belittle me. I also ask, as strongly as I can, that it does not seek to belittle my husband—it would not be difficult to do so in view of the condition that he is in. It would be deeply unfair and wrong to use him and his illness to get at me.

It appears that the News of the World has crawled over the whole of my adult life. I left home when I was 17 to go to university. I met and married my philosophy student husband. In the early 1970s I worked in the Home Office —that is the period in which the News of the World is most interested—and in the late 1970s I became involved with and married Alex Lyon. That brings the News of the World completely up to date.

The question is, why is the News of the World so interested in me? Why has it spent so much time trailing through my life? The answer is not just that it wants to smear and belittle me for the titillation of their readers; the real answer is political. Two motives come together—disgruntled ex-officers of the West Midlands serious crimes squad want to get at me, and the Murdoch tabloids hate me because I have said that they should not carry porn in their papers.

For those to whom this has not yet happened, I should like to warn hon. Members and the public that to have one's life crawled over by the News of the World is an extremely unpleasant experience. For the past two weeks I have been haunted by the Gulf and by the News of the World—the sublime to the ridiculous. I do not think that I should be distracted from my work in this House by that newspaper's squalid activities.

I wish to warn every Member of this House of the serious implications. If any one of them steps outside the political space allowed to them by the tabloid press, it can do it to them. It is a very serious matter, and I think that the Privileges Committee should consider it. After all, I am not the only one. The hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) dared to stand against the former Prime Minister, and it did it to him. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) dared to say that it was time for the former Prime Minister to retire, and it did it to him. The hon. Members for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates), for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) and for Leeds, North-West (Dr. Hampson) dared to support the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) in the Tory leadership battle, and it did it to them. There are probably others, but I do not read those newspapers.

Every Member of Parliament can be done over. Please do not think that one can escape because there is nothing to hide in one's life. Those newspapers can make the events of any ordinary life like mine seem sordid and squalid. It is a question of privacy, but it is also a very serious question of politics and democracy that should concern us all.

My conclusions—and I am sorry that I have taken so long—are that, first, hon. Members must take the issue seriously. It is me today, it will be one of them tomorrow. It involves the misuse of press power to prevent us from properly doing our job as Members of Parliament. Secondly, I say to my fellow citizens in the country, please do not think that this is a matter just for Members of Parliament; the newspapers can do it to anybody. If, for any reason, a member of a family comes to public attention, they will crawl over his or her life, distort the truth and hurt that person—who will not have the platform that I have to answer back. As we know, the newspapers are currently abusing even the families of people who have been lost in the Gulf.

Thirdly, I call for legislation as a remedy. My solicitor and I would like to say how enormously grateful I am to him for his help through this time—tells me that I could apply for an injunction to stop the News of the World, or sue it for defamation afterwards. I am better off than most of my fellow citizens, but I cannot possibly afford an injunction. I am not interested in money after I have been smeared and belittled. As long as I can pay my bills at the end of the week and care for those whom I have to care for, I am not interested in money. We need proper, cheap, efficient remedies to prevent what has happened. I note that the preventative hotline recommended by the Calcutt report has not yet been set up—otherwise I would have used it—and the Library tells me that that is now unlikely.

Lastly, and extremely importantly, I call for the sacking of the editor of the News of the World from the Press Complaints Commission. We cannot take self-regulation seriously for a minute when a person who organises events such as those that I have described is supposed to help to curb the excesses of the press.

I intend to ask the Privileges Committee to consider my case as I am being attacked for doing two things I did in this House as part of my life as a Member of Parliament. I shall complain also to the Press Complaints Commission and to the chief constable of the west midlands. I hope that he will be as helpful as Commander Monk. It is, after all, the same thing—the misuse by some police officers and the News of the World of irrelevant information obtained during a criminal investigation.

A healthy democracy needs a healthy press, and we do not have that in Britain. I believe that we should get on and legislate to improve the standards of our press.

11.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

Having listened carefully to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), I can fully understand her feelings about the inquiries which she has reason to believe a Sunday newspaper and other journals—I believe that she referred to other sections of the press—are making about her personal life and relationships going back many years. Judging by what she says she has been told about the questions and the assumptions, and the assertions that lie behind them, I can readily understand why she is distressed and angered. I understand her reaction to the other unfriendly and inaccurate press coverage as she described it.

As the hon. Member for Ladywood mentioned, hon. Members on both sides of the House have been and remain concerned about journalistic abuses, especially invasions of privacy that cannot be justified in the public interest. The hon. Lady commented that a couple of years ago several private Members' Bills that would have given a right of privacy or a right of reply were introduced in response to cruel and irresponsible journalism that had caused widespread dismay in this place and among the general public. The Government were unable to support the Bills for reasons of principle and because of technical flaws. However, we announced on 21 April 1989 the setting up of a committee to consider the case for a new remedy for unwanted intrusions into privacy by the press.

The report of that committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. David Calcutt, was welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House on 21 June 1990. We accepted its main recommendations, which were for the replacement of the Press Council by a Press Complaints Commission, for new offences of unwarranted invasion of privacy for publication purposes and for slightly stricter court reporting restrictions. At the same time, and consistent with the Calcutt committee's approach, we made it clear that self-regulation under a new Press Complaints Commission was the industry's last chance to put its house in order, and that we would review the effectiveness of the commission after 18 months' operation to ascertain whether it should be put on a statutory footing.

We are naturally pleased that the industry set up the Press Complaints Commission at the beginning of the year, and did so with considerable dispatch. The previous Home Secretary welcomed the appointment of Lord McGregor of Durris as its chairman for his mixture of independence of view and experience as chairman of the last Royal Commission on the press, and more recently of the Advertising Standards Authority.

However, the composition of the commission—something to which the hon. Member for Ladywood referred particularly—its remit and its adjudicatory code are not matters for the Government at this stage, and we would not wish to influence them. We have made it clear that we are concerned only with the effectiveness of the new arrangements in terms of making abuses things of the past. We are not concerned with the detail of those arrangements. It is for the commission to decide how best to regulate the industry, but it is clear to me that the issues to which the hon. Lady referred are matters for the commission. I am not so certain that any of the activities that she described would be caught by the offences of physical intrusion recommended by the Calcutt committee and accepted in principle by the Government, but they may be. I shall have to read the hon. Lady's remarks carefully.

The commission is proposing to adjudicate according to a code that will be modelled on, but not identical to, that proposed by the Calcutt committee. The code includes matters such as inaccuracy, to which the hon. Member for Ladywood referred, confusion of fact and comment, to which again she referred, opportunity to reply and, pre-eminently, intrusion into privacy. I suggest that the hon. Lady should do what she said she was intending to do, although she was sorry that she did not have the hot-line to do it, and ask the commission to intercede in the matters that she has outlined before publication. If the article is published, I suggest that she should consider whether to make a formal complaint on the ground that the code has been breached. Alternatively, I suggest that she takes both actions. For my part, I shall ensure that the official record of the debate is sent to the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. In that way, the commission will have, at the earliest opportunity, the full catalogue of intrusion, innuendo and distortion to which the hon. Lady is convinced that she is being subjected and which, as I say, I can well understand she finds deeply hurtful.

I shall consider carefully the references that the hon. Lady has made to the police, as well as all the other important and worrying points that she made during her speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.