§ Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)
I must tell Scottish Members that they should come to Northern Ireland. We do not even get written answers. More than eight hospital trusts were announced recently and we were not given the courtesy of a written answer. Although I have some sympathy for what Scottish Members were saying, they should understand the difficulties elsewhere. In view of what has happened, I hope that there is a concept of injury time here; otherwise, I am afraid that it will come out of the Government's time.
The question of media coverage of terrorism, especially terrorism in Northern Ireland, is huge, but in the limited time available I intend to cover only a couple of aspects' of it. I realise that "media" includes all media, including print media, but we normally use the term with regard to the broadcast media, especially television. Special considerations apply to television.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I think that he makes a fair point. The next debate will start five minutes later than scheduled.
§ Mr. Trimble
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The special position of the television media was recognised by the Government when they imposed broadcasting restrictions, which were imposed by the Home Secretary in 1988. Those broadcasting restrictions have been criticised as imposing some sort of restriction on free speech and reporting. Of course, they are nothing of the sort. They do not conflict with the European convention on human rights because that convention permits restrictions in the interests of, among other things, national security and territorial integrity. Clearly, both those restrictions apply to the situation in Northern Ireland.
The restrictions do not prevent the reporting of the situation in Northern Ireland. Broadcasters have had no problem whatever in finding surrogates for terrorists who will explain the so-called point of view of those terrorists. The problem with the broadcasting restrictions is quite the opposite. The restrictions have become ineffective because they contain loopholes which do not appear on the face of the directive. The loopholes were created by the Home Office.
At the outset in 1988, a senior Home Office official gave guidance to the broadcasting authorities and, in the course of that, created two loopholes. The loopholes are set out in a letter which appears in the law reports of the case of Brind and others v. Secretary of State for the Home Department. The first loophole is thatthe notice permits the showing of a film or still picture of the initiator speaking the words together with a voice-over account of them, whether in paraphrase or verbatim.Of course, we see the picture of the terrorist and a skilled actor speaks the terrorist's words in circumstances in which it is impossible to tell whether one is dealing with the actual terrorist speaking. One must often look and listen carefully to see whether such broadcasts are within the loophole or breach the directive.
The second loophole is also referred to in the letter:A member of an organisation cannot be held to represent that organisation in all its daily activities. Whether at any 570 particular instance he is representing the organisation concerned will depend upon the nature of the words spoken and the particular context.That loophole has been deliberately abused to enable broadcasters to broadcast terrorists when they are nominally dealing with other matters. The extent of the abuse in such circumstances is getting bad.
When we examine the other jurisdiction within the British Isles—that of the Republic of Ireland—it is ironic that we find a much better example. As the Minister knows, the Republic operates exactly the same broadcasting restrictions. The directive issued under section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in the Republic of Ireland is identical to the directive issued in the United Kingdom.
The same loopholes do not exist in the Republic. That was graphically illustrated in a report in yesterday's Irish Times, in which RTE refused to broadcast a member of Sinn Fein in his capacity as chairman of the strike committee, simply because he was a member of Sinn Fein. There is a strike at his place of employment at present. The gentleman is going to court to compel RTE to broadcast him. That is a clear example of how the directive should be interpreted and applied. The directive and the words are the same. That case is an example of the broadcasting authorities in the Republic of Ireland behaving responsibly. That is in clear contrast to the way in which the broadcasters in the United Kingdom are behaving irresponsibly by extending the loopholes.
Obviously, it is my submission that the loopholes should be closed and the damage repaired. We have raised the matter before. As the Minister knows, on 7 December my hon Friend the Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) raised the most recent and flagrant example of abuse. A Sinn Fein councillor was interviewed about a terrorist incident on the supposition that he was a bystander who had some knowledge of it. The councillor did not witness the accident. He did not live nearby; he had come on the scene several minutes later. He was given the opportunity to broadcast the Sinn Fein view of the incident.
That was a clear breach of the directive. The question is: what will be done about it? Unfortunately, the Secretary of State for National Heritage said that itis a matter for the broadcasters themselves. They must decide whether a person is speaking on behalf of an organisation … or is speaking in a different capacity."—[Official Report, 7 December 1992; Vol. 215, c. 577.]What is the point of having a directive if no effort is made to enforce it? With the exception of the question of the loopholes which should be plugged, there is a question of enforcement. If we have the opportunity, I should like to hear the views of the Minister on enforcement. If no precise method of enforcement were set out in the Act or the charter, Her Majesty's Government would have no difficulty obtaining injunctions to restrain broadcasting authorities. There are clear and repeated examples of breaches.
Over and above all that, there is the question why broadcasters behave irresponsibly. Instead of respecting the directive and acting more in accordance with the spirit of the directive and the needs of society generally, why do broadcasters seek to extend and broaden the loopholes?
Obviously, that question broadens into criticism of broadcasters generally. The programme makers and broadcasters in Northern Ireland which we deal with directly—BBC Northern Ireland and Ulster Television— 571 behave with considerable responsibility, care and sensitivity. I think that the same is true of those which operate in the Republic of Ireland.
Our experience over the years is that the problem lies specifically with the television journalists who operate from London. They tend to fly into Northern Ireland, usually with their minds made up. They are anxious to make their reputations, and the bigger the sensation the better it is for them. They then fly out to enjoy their publicity without regard for those who must stay and perhaps pick up the tab. We are especially conscious of that matter and the lack of balance in broadcasting. The London media seem to think that the only sides which exist are often the Government and the terrorists. They forget that other sides are also involved.
In the past 22 years, I cannot recall many programmes which have dealt accurately, or even sympathetically, with the view of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. One honourable exception was the recent broadcast on Remembrance day dealing with the aftermath of the Enniskillen bombing. However, that programme stands out as an exception. Few programmes have dealt with the matter in a balanced way. Rather than deal with general issues, I want to focus on a specific matter.
§ Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)
Does my hon. Friend accept that broadcasters have not only acted in such a dishonourable way but have spent hours interviewing some of us as representatives of the Unionist community and then refused to put us on the programme because it did not square with what they were trying to say? Will he also confirm that the person interviewed in relation to the Falls did not even come from the Falls so could not have been said to represent that community?
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should now examine the regulations, especially when 25 per cent. of programmes are made by outside programme makers and when there has been evidence of people being paid to do things that have not actually happened? There has been a tragic death as a result of a French television crew doing that.
§ Mr. Trimble
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's comments, and I shall add to what he said towards the end of his intervention.
I said that I would focus on a couple of examples of TV bias and sheer downright bad journalism. One example—it brings in the print media—comes from last weekend's Sunday Times and concerns Mr. Ronan Bennett, who was recently given almost an entire page in The Guardian in which he told us what great idealists the members of the IRA were. I believe that that article has caused some misgivings in that paper, and rightly so.
The article omitted to express Mr. Bennett's indebtedness to the single-judge Diplock courts in Northern Ireland. In the early 1970s, a single judge sitting in a Diplock court acquitted Mr. Bennett on a murder charge, displaying a lawyer's scrupulousness to the possibility of doubt in regard to the identification evidence of a witness. Many people doubt whether an ordinary person would have shared the same degree of doubt.
Last weekend, The Sunday Times told us that the BBC had commissioned two plays from Mr. Bennett. I wonder whether Mr. Bennett will use those plays to pay his debt to 572 the Northern Ireland legal system. I suspect that he will use them instead to attack that system and to produce the usual propaganda in favour of republican terrorism.
Is that the sort of thing the BBC should be doing and the way in which it should be commissioning plays? But, then, it is in character. After all, it commissioned a play by Danny Morrison, one of whose jobs at the time was to act as press officer to Sinn Fein. Mr. Morrison's recent conviction for terrorist activities confirmed suspicions that another of his jobs was to be on the IRA's so-called army council, a suspicion that at the time was well known to everyone. It must have been known to the BBC.
But the main example on which I shall concentrate today is a programme that was broadcast by Channel 4 in October 1991 as part of the "Dispatches" series and entitled "The Committee". I raised the matter in a debate on Northern Ireland on 10 June and I make no apology for returning to it, partly because it was such a bad programme in sheer journalistic terms and partly because some of the matters that were raised clearly referred to my constituency, and there is a real concern in that respect.
Nearly all the background film used in the programme, especially in the crucial second half, was recognisably located in the north Armagh area. Northern Ireland is a small place, so people know the places being shown and quickly recognise them. There was also reference in the programme to terrorist incidents in my constituency, so it is appropriate that I should raise the matter now.
There were two aspects of the programme. The first dealt with a body that was established a few years ago in Northern Ireland calling itself the Ulster Independence Committee, generally referred to at home as the independence committee. The committee exists to promote what is in itself the perfectly legitimate idea that Northern Ireland, having been treated so badly by this House over the last two decades, should now seek independence.
The committee has advanced that view by entirely lawful means, notably when its chairman, the Rev. Hugh Ross, opposed me in the 1990 Upper Bann by-election. Needless to say, the Ulster Unionist party dealt effortlessly with the challenge. Even so, Hugh Ross exeeded the vote of the much publicised Conservative challenger by a margin of 50 per cent.
The second, and more sinister, part of the programme alleged that there existed a secret loyalist body, which was sometimes referred to as "the inner circle" but which the programme as a whole identified as "the committee". It was alleged that that secret body masterminded the planning of assassinations of republicans. We were told that the committee consisted of loyalist paramilitaries, politicians, professional men—various professions, including solicitors, were mentioned—and members of the RUC.
In subsequent media comment, the programme has been referred to as alleging collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the RUC. Those comments and that description of the programme are profoundly objectionable. Even if everything said in the programme were true, which it was not, it would still not prove collusion between terrorists and the RUC. The phrase "the RUC" refers to the organisation as a whole. Does anybody think that the force officially colludes with terrorists? Would anyone suggest that Hugh Annesely goes to such meetings or sends his deputies to them? Even if the programme were true, it would only show that certain individual members of the force are behaving illegally and reprehensibly. It is a small 573 but important point, because responsible media take care to get things right and not to give a false impression by the use of careless language.
My first range of objections to the programme concerns the juxtaposition of the two parts. The programme entitled "The Committee" referred to two committees, one of which I shall call "the independence committee" and the other—as I say, it is sometimes referred to as "the inner circle"—I shall call simply "the committee."
It was easy for the viewer to miss the distinction between the two bodies. There was a brief debate about the programme later in Channel 4's "Right to Reply" programme, and I raised the matter with a senior commissioning editor of Channel 4, Liz Forgan. She claimed that the two committees had been clearly separated in the programme; but I recall no statement which made that separation. Indeed, in addition to the confusion that would naturally be engendered by the juxtaposition, some of the graphics used for the "the committee" part of the programme had as its background the flag that has been promoted by the independence committee as the proposed flag for an independent Ulster. That clearly linked the two.
Indeed, the programme as a whole linked the two, and I have no doubt that anybody watching it would easily have confused the two. The question is whether that confusion was intended by the programme makers or was merely coincidental. Whichever it was, deliberate or negligent, it was the clearest error of judgment that could have had, and may yet have, potentially dangerous consequences.
The independence committee is an open body and there is no secret about its members. The "Dispatches" programme said that "the committee" included lawyers. As I say, Northern Ireland is a small community. It was immediately apparent to informed people in Northern Ireland that the lawyer on "the committee" could be only one of two people. Only one lawyer is on the independence committee. I know him; he is a former member of the Ulster Unionist party. Unfortunately, he left the party despairing for the future of the Union. I believe he is wrong, but he is a responsible person and not the type of man who would be involved in the sort of activities on which the Channel 4 programme was focusing. He contacted me the morning after the programme was broadcast and was very concerned about his personal security because of the way in which he had been implicitly identified.
The other prime candidate is a north Armagh solicitor who specialises in criminal work and is well known for his loyalist views. He is a former political activist, but he, too, is a responsible person who I know would not be involved with terrorism. He did not see the programme, but he told me that when he attended court the next day—because he had some cases running in the local courts—he wondered why people were staring at him with a strange expression. He was horrified to discover that all the people present thought that he had been unmasked the night before as the brains behind a murder gang. I am happy to say that he has commenced, or is about to commence, libel proceedings in the matter, and I earnestly hope that there will be a just result.
574 Those two people were not mentioned by name, unlike the chairman of the independence committee, the Rev. Hugh Ross, who was interviewed at length. None of those interviews or questions related to a possible involvement with terrorism, but he was outraged when he saw the programme and noted that he was being linked to a paramilitary committee involved in the planning of terrorism. He said afterwards that, had he had any idea of the accusations that would be made on the programme, he would have made clear to the interviewer the position of the independence committee with regard to terrorism.
On the "Right to Reply" programme, Liz Forgan tried to avoid the obvious charge that Channel 4 had engaged in character assassination by saying that the reason why the Rev. Hugh Ross should not be given the opportunity to deal with his views on terrorism was that the nature of the programme changed after the interview with him. She might believe that; I do not, and I have good reason for not believing it, as I shall say later, because the picture given to the court in the action of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Channel 4 and Box shows detailed control by Channel 4 and Box over all stages of the making of the programme. But, even if what she says is true, it is a terrible confession, showing a lack of basic journalistic ethics. To interview a person, change the nature of the programme and broadcast the interview in a totally different context from that originally undertaken for the interview is a quite disgraceful thing to do.
Matters get worse when we come to the other half of the programme dealing with "the committee". As evidence for the existence of that committee three things were brought forward. The evidence consisted of an interview with a gentleman known as Billy Wright who, if I remember correctly, did not actually refer to "the committee", but talked generally of the motives of loyalist paramilitaries. Although he did not acutally confess to personal involvement in any murders, the programme, and indeed Mr. Wright himself, left the impression that he was engaged in paramilitary activities.
I hold no brief for Mr. Wright. I am told that he is a gangster who tries to cloak his crimes with political motivation, and, to give colour to that motivation, occasionally gets involved in sectarian crimes about which he then boasts to journalists, giving interviews to them regularly. Whether he has committed all the offences of which he boasts I do not know, but I can hazard, a fair guess as to why he collaborated with "Dispatches" and gave credence to the accusation that some RUC officers collude with paramilitaries. The allegation, if true or if believed and acted upon, would have a disruptive effect on the police and reduce their effectiveness. He has a clear interest in harming the police force.
I note in passing that Lord Justice Woolf, in the legal action to which I referred, said himself that the immediate effect of the programme would be to undermine the confidence of the public, particularly in Northern Ireland, in the RUC. That was the effect, perhaps even the objective, of the programme. Incidentally, Mr. Wright was clearly named in the programme, which is why I have used his name. I am very conscious of the dangers of naming people in this context, and I do not intend to name other participants in the programme, although the names of some of them are very well known indeed and are on the record. But I do not think that it is desirable, and it is not necessary to do so.
575 The other evidence in the programme was an interview with a Northern Ireland journalist, a native of Northern Ireland, who, immediately after the programme, protested to the local media that the parts of the interview that were shown seriously misrepresented his views. Whether that gentleman's protests were ever broadcast in this part of the United Kingdom or given any publicity here is of course another matter.
Finally, the piece de resistance was an anonymous interview, with a figure seated in a room, silhouetted against a window. We were given the impression that that gentleman, who talked in detail about "the committee", was a member of a loyalist paramilitary organisation, perhaps a senior member of the Ulster Volunteer Force or the Ulster Freedom Fighters. "Dispatches" assured us that the information contained in the programme was genuine. The "Right to Reply" commissioning editor said that they had undertaken exhaustive report research and stood over the programme.
On 10 June, I said:What was produced on screen in the way uf evidence was singularly unconvincing.After the programme, in an attempt to bolster their case, those involved in the production of 'Dispatches' supplied the RUC with names, some of whom they said were members of the inner circle. Some of the names were not even in the RUC, although those involved with 'Dispatches' said they were. I believe that the RUC is satisfied that none of those names was so involvedin the way suggested by the programme. I went on to state:
If the programme makers had consulted any reputable journalist operating in Ulster, they would have been told that the allegations were fantasies.I suspect that the programme involved more than gullibility. The person who made it was no wide-eyed innocent coming to Ulster for the first time. He was a native of Ulster who in his student days was associated with extreme Republican politics."—[Official Report, 10 June 1992; Vol. 209, c. 406–07.]The police acted on the matter, as we know. Their own inquiries satisfied them that there was no police involvement in the matter, and statements were issued by the Chief Constable to that effect. In order to obtain more information about the existence or possible existence of "the committee", steps were taken to require the disclosure of the sources. "Dispatches" refused, however, to do so, and we had legal actions which eventually culminated in the case of the DPP, Channel 4 and Box, and proceedings in which Channel 4 and Box were fined £75,000 for contempt of court, what some people might regard as a lenient result which indicates—indeed, the judgment indicates it—some sympathy for the dilemma of journalists in such situations.
After the contempt case, a researcher who worked with the programme was charged with perjury, the charge being that, because in the contempt case detailed statements were put in about the making of the programme, and of course such false statements would amount to perjury, charges were then brought. That action was characterised by some in the press as a demonstration of persecution of a programme or a hounding of the programme makers at the instance of the RUC. More recently, the charge of perjury was dropped. The dropping of those charges was interpreted by the researcher and by others as in some way a vindication of this programme and the allegations made on the programe, and there were then renewed calls for an inquiry.
Normally, I would dismiss calls for an inquiry in such a context because they come frequently and they are the 576 usual next step undertaken by people who are intent on hindering the efforts of the security forces. But in this case I have come to the conclusion that there should be an inquiry—that an inquiry would be useful. An inquiry should look at the original allegations of collusion so as to put the matter beyond doubt. I am quite sure that it will not take long to dispel the smears on the RUC in the programme. The inquiry that I am calling for should focus on the making of the programme and on subsequent events in this rather sorry tale.
The inquiry should look in particular into whether it is normal practice for charges to be dropped before the forensic report on matters which are not just relevant to the charges but are central to the charges had been received. I am told that such action is rather unprecedented and that normally, when one asks for a forensic report relating to a charge, one waits until one gets the forensic report before evaluating the charge. I am told that in this case charges were dropped before the forensic report was available. The inquiry might look into the reason for that decision and inquire whether any influence was brought to bear in what was a rather unusual decision.
In the course of the perjury action, some notes and documents were obtained by the police that relate to the making of the programme. In those notes there is reference to a hitch-hiker. The inquiry that I am suggesting might look into an astonishing report that reached me a few days ago that the person in the notes referred to as the hitch-hiker was walking on a road outside Castledawson when a car stopped and out of the car got persons connected with the making of the programme "Dispatches". They spoke to him, and, in return for offers of money and other things, induced him to take part in an interview in which he sat in a darkened room and made various statements that had been supplied to him by the programme makers.
That is the person who in the programme was portrayed as loyalist paramilitary. The identity of that person is known and it is actually on the public record. I will not give it here because it would only cause more embarrassment to him if the matter were given wider circulation, but it is available in the papers relating to the programme.
That gentleman, of course, is not in either the UVF or the UFF. I am told that the police are satisfied that there is no suspicion of his involvement in terrorism. Indeed, the gentleman concerned is a member of the Romam Catholic religion and is consequently unlikely to be involved in loyalist paramilitary activity. He is not suspected of being involved in any other paramilitary activity. He might have thought at the time that participating in that charade at the time was a bit of a joke. Of course it is reprehensible to have done so, but his life, I understand, has now been disrupted as a result of it. I am told that he is presently in hiding.
My advice to him, if these words should reach him, is that he should come forward and tell the truth about the matter. He should let the matter fully come out into the open. I am not aware of the circumstances, but in the statements given to the court by the DPP and Box, a detailed picture began to emerge of the making and control of the programme. We are told that there was control by Channel 4 and by Box at every stage, to an unusual degree. It is very strange that such a degree of control could be imposed without the charade being detected.
577 It may be that the charade was not as serious as first meets the eye. Perhaps there was a source A and that source was reluctant to appear before the television cameras in any form—and that the hitch-hiker was recruited to act as part of a dramatic reconstruction. That is the most favourable construction that I can put on the facts. If that was the case, it should have been said clearly. Incidentally, my information comes from sources that I consider to be reliable, but I would like a full inquiry to verify the matter—just in case I have been misled in any way. I have been assured by different sources that the police have in their possession statements from some of those involved in the programme's production, in which they admit that it was fabricated.
Earlier, I referred to the "Right to Reply" programme in which Channel 4's commissioning editor said that it stood by the programme and was certain of its veracity. Did they fully investigate and control the making of that programme? Have they subsequently, in the light of the legal proceedings, investigated matters—particularly with regard to the perjury fiasco, when I understand that certain matters in papers relating to that case should put people on notice about suspect aspects of the programme? Do Channel 4 still regard the programme as embodying the kind of quality journalism that it and any other television company should be involved in?
Channel 4 has invested financial and other capital in the programme. I recall seeing pictures of Sir Richard Attenborough and Michael Grade outside the law courts vowing to support the programme and if necessary go down with it. Did they know at the time that they were defending and supporting a fabrication? Do they know that now? If so, will they support an investigation?
Behind Channel 4 and Box lies the origin of the programme—the person who sold the concept to the programme makers. I refer not to the producer, but to the debate of 10 June. The person whom I suspect was the originator of the programme is a native of Northern Ireland. I understand that he now claims that his life is under threat. I cannot assess the validity of that claim, but I hope that it is as false as some of the others that he peddled through the programme. I understand that he is currently engaged in trying to sell another idea to programme makers in London. Will they be fooled again?
I repeat my request for a full investigation, and ask what steps the Minister proposes to take, to check against such manipulation of the media. Yesterday's issue of The Irish Times also contains a story with correspondence between Dublin and the central committee of the international department of the Communist party of the Soviet Union in which people invite financial support for an independent programme maker who was intended, among other things, to place programmes with the BBC and Channel 4. That illustrates the danger of manipulation to which my hon. Friend referred earlier, particularly in respect of outside broadcasters. What safeguards are there to be in that regard?
I began by mentioning broadcasting restrictions. Part of the justification for them is that broadcasting differs from the printed media and so requires special measures. I believe that is right, and that principle has relevance to the sorry tale that I have told today. There is a duty not 578 only to make broadcasting restrictions more effective, but to consider how to prevent such abuse, which only plays into the hands of the enemies of society.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Robert Key)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) for providing the opportunity to debate a most important issue and to set out the Government's position. I am delighted to see the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr. Molyneaux) and the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) in their places. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who of course understands well the gravity of the issues, is unable to join us for this debate, but he knows of it and will of course read it. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) is in his place. He will pursue any particularly important Northern Ireland points raised by the hon. Member for Upper Bann.
Media coverage of terrorism in Northern Ireland is an area about which many people feel very strongly. Any area of life which impinges on the question of the freedom of the individual quite rightly rouses passions across the community.
When I talk about the freedom of the individual, I mean not only such issues as the freedom of the press and the right of people to receive information but the right of ordinary people to live ordinary lives without the threat of appalling terrorist crimes, such as that in Oxford street only yesterday.
We cannot allow the terrorists to win the propaganda victory through their criminal activity. Broadcasters must always be sensitive to the danger they face when covering such issues. The media provide the opportunity for the public to see terrorists exposed for what they really are—criminals dedicated to attempting to ruin the lives of ordinary people going about their business, both in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Manipulation of a free press by terrorists, allowing them to spread fear and their pernicious doctrines to intimidate the public, is something the media need to guard against. The onus is on editors to find the balance between rightly informing the public and inadvertently being used by terrorist gangs. The Government and the security forces do not regard themselves as above press scrutiny, but they—and the public they serve—have a right to expect that the same standards of investigation, the same professional scepticism, be applied to information emanating from other sources, including those close to terrorists.
First, I will deal with the Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme to which the hon. Member for Upper Bann referred. The programme made a series of allegations concerning the existence of organised collusion between the security forces and loyalist paramilitaries through an inner circle. It alleged that Royal Ulster Constabulary officers fed information on targets that assisted the paramilitaries. The programme relied largely, however, on allegations from an unknown source who produced no hard evidence for the claims that he made.
The programme made serious allegations about the integrity of the security forces in Northern Ireland, which the RUC were clearly under a duty to investigate—even if that caused on this occasion a degree of conflict with the 579 broadcasters. The RUC appointed a senior detective to conduct a full investigation into the allegations. As part of the inquiry, it was concluded that it was necessary to seek to establish the identity of the individual who had made the allegations. The "Dispatches" programme failed to produce significant supporting evidence for the man's claims, so it is obviously difficult for the RUC to investigate further unless the man's identity is established.
Of course, we all have views on the way in which the media should act in matters such as these, but having views does not give the Government the automatic right to intervene in the programming policy of broadcasters, either.
During the period leading up to the issue of the notices on 19 October 1988, the broadcast coverage of events in Northern Ireland had included the appearance of representatives of paramilitary organisations and their political supporters, who used those opportunities as an attempt to justify criminal activities. Such appearances caused widespread offence to viewers and listeners throughout the United Kingdom, particularly after a terrorist crime had been committed.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann raised a number of particular cases where he claims that the broadcasters failed to follow the restrictions. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will follow through those particular cases.
There have from time to time been suggestions that the written press should be subject to restrictions in this area. I do not agree. As I said, it is vital that any restrictions, however narrow, should not restrict the public's right to information. We have no plans to widen the scope of the notices to include any restrictions on the written press.
As with so many matters of this sort, a careful balance must be struck between the need for the Government to secure the rights and freedoms of society as a whole and the rights of the individual. That is explicitly recognised in the universal declaration of human rights and the very narrow scope of the notices strikes that balance.
May I end with one final point. Terrorists attempt to place themselves above the law and to make themselves accountable to no one but themselves. The role of the media in scrutinising the activities of these criminals is as important as the scrutiny of those who seek to defeat them.
§ Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thank you for allowing me to raise this further point of order. Has any progress been made since we raised a point of order about an hour ago? Will a Minister or the Leader of the House come to the Chamber to make a public announcement about the disgraceful decision to allow eight hospitals in Scotland to have trust status?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. I shall take one point of order at a time. I think that it was about 45 minutes ago that the hon. Lady rose on a point of order. Since that point was raised, I have received no communication from anybody.
§ Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You rightly said that this is a special day for Back Benchers and that the role of the Chair is to protect Back Benchers. I am a Back Bencher. I see on the front page of my local newspaper, 580 Dundee's The Courier and Advertiser, that the Government are to award trust status to the national health service hospitals in Dundee. However, no Minister is here to inform me whether that story is accurate or inaccurate. Therefore, I have no means of defending my constituents in Dundee who depend upon the national health service there. How can the Chair protect the interests of Back Benchers against a Government who dismiss us so contemptuously by refusing even to say what their intentions are, when they know that Parliament is about to go into recess for three weeks?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for the Chair. The Chair understood that the Opposition spokesman was to make inquiries about further negotiations until 2.30. Since it is only 11.50, perhaps we ought to wait a little longer.
§ Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We certainly do not want to disrupt the proceedings, because this is an important day for Back Benchers. However, am I not right in thinking that Madam Speaker and, before her, Mr. Speaker Weatherill deprecated the practice of Ministers making press statements but not statements to the House? I believe that I am also right in thinking that the Secretary of State for Health for England and Wales has always made a statement to the House about opt-outs.
The Secretary of State for Scotland is in some difficulty, since the Minister with responsibility for health is not a Member of this House but a Member of another place. I am sure that you will appreciate that feelings are running very high indeed today when we hear that a lot of hospitals are to opt out and when we hear, too, that a further announcement is to be made during the recess.
There is to be a press notice next week. In one case, the Royal hospital for sick children in Edinburgh, the public were fraudulently induced to give money to the national health service to help that hospital, for we now discover that that hospital is, in effect, to be turned into a private trust hospital. I hope that those who follow our proceedings, including those Back Benchers who have secured debates today, will understand that we have every right, as Members of Parliament, to ask that Ministers be held accountable in this place; otherwise, there is precious little point in having Parliament at all.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I recognise that feelings are running high and I understand why they are running high. I confirm that Madam Speaker has made it clear that she deprecates any statement being made to outside bodies before it is made to the House. It is not for me to judge whether that has happened in this case, but that is the statement she has made.
§ Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)
The Royal hospital for sick children, Yorkhill, is the jewel in the crown of the Greater Glasgow health board. Its service to the public over many decades has been peerless. It is famous throughout the world. Like the Royal hospital for sick children in Edinburgh, it receives large sums of charitably given money—money given in expectation that that hospital would remain a public hospital. I understand from the front page of the local newspaper of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) that it is to be awarded trust status, thus overriding the wishes 581 of everyone who works there, of those who have ever used it and of those who have ever uttered a point of view on the matter.
We spent five hours yesterday in the House with Scottish Office Ministers, who must have known that that devastating news was to be released in this way. They did not have the courtesy, either to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the House as a whole or to Opposition Members, to give us an inkling that the announcement was to be made in this outrageous way. Can I ask you to make your view known to those who sit on the Treasury Bench: that they must bring the Minister to the House to answer these points, which are made in all sincerity? Otherwise I feel that we shall be letting our people down—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not being tempted down the threatening route. He knows full well that it is for the Government of the day to decide when and where a statement is to be made. Madam Speaker has made it clear that statements should preferably be made, in her opinion, on the Floor of the House before they are made elsewhere. However, it is not for Madam Speaker to direct the Government or the Opposition to do anything. We are here to try to provide a forum for considered debate. I am afraid that this morning's debate is not scheduled to be Scottish business, although I have now called about seven Scottish Members.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has come into the Chamber for the second round. He was not here for the first. I hope that the hon. Gentleman intends to raise a new point of order.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
Yes. May I draw your attention to the exchanges yesterday on the Floor of the House? It was put to Madam Speaker that the government of Scotland and of this House was being brought into disrepute in the eyes of the people of Scotland by the way that Scottish affairs are treated. Any number of Ministers and Conservative Members of Parliament were willing to come to the House to raise frivolous points about Monklands district council, yet when major decisions are being taken about the future of the national health service a Minister cannot be found. Who is running Scotland? Who is meant to be in control of them?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not think that we need to take this matter any further now. Hon. Gentlemen have made their views extremely clear this morning. I must now call the hon. Members—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I heard the Opposition spokesman say that further efforts were being made to get hold of a Minister before 2.30. It is only just coming up to noon. I suggest that those negotiations continue so that we can get on with the debates and protect the interests of Back Benchers.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I call the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), and then it must be the turn of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway).
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Further to my earlier point of order, I mentioned to you that our Chief Whip was negotiating with the usual channels. As yet, there has been no reply. I do not know whether that is an act of discourtesy or whether it means that negotiations are still going on. None the less, it means that we are still hopeful that someone will come to the Chamber to make a statement. I ask you to use your good offices to press those who are sitting on the Treasury Bench to make sure that we get that statement before the end of business today.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Those who sit on the Treasury Bench will have heard that negotiations are taking place. I am firmly stuck in this Chair for the moment. Therefore, I call the hon. Member for Croydon, South.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat when I am on my feet. May I also respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman has a look at "Erksine May"? [Interruption.] Order. I must ask the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke) not to carry on an argument while I am talking.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I am most grateful. It is a rule of the House that the House can spy strangers only once during a day's sitting. That motion was moved by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and was negatived. Therefore, that particular route is now closed. I call the hon. Member for Croydon, South.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I must refer the hon. Gentleman to page 172 of "Erskine May", which I took the precaution of reading while he was out having a coffee.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) wants to intervene and interrupt his hon. Friend. The hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) is, I hope, raising a new point of order.
§ Mr. Hood
Yes. I heard about the previous points of order while I was dealing with my constituency correspondence. I apologise for not having been here then, but that was the reason for my absence. While I was with my secretary dealing with my correspondence, I received two telephone calls asking me whether it was true that Stone House hospital and Law hospital will announce next week that they are to opt out. Fourteen hospitals are to optout.
I am not aware of what happened here earlier this morning, but I am concerned that, while I have been doing my work on the last day before the Christmas recess, my constituents have been panicking because of reports of hospital opt-outs—information that should have been provided first to Members of Parliament. I am in an embarrassing position, because I cannot give answers to my constituents. It is disgraceful. I want—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hear the hon. Gentleman. I understand and sympathise with him if he feels that he has been placed in an embarrassing position with his constituents. No hon. Member should be placed in that position. However, the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Ottaway) is waiting to raise an important matter that affects his constituents. My job is to protect the interests of all Back Benchers, and the hon. Gentleman has gone to considerable trouble to ensure that he can voice the concerns of his constituents. I am sure that Scottish Members would not want to embarrass him with his constituents by preventing him from putting his case.
Given that, as I understand it, negotiations are continuing through the usual channels, and the fact that hon. Gentlemen have put their points with conviction and considerable persuasion, I hope that we can now move on to the next debate. I call the hon. Member for Croydon, South.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The hon. Lady has not yet put a point of order to me. As she has been rising with some conviction, I shall hear her.
§ Mrs. Adams
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder what protection the House can offer me and, therefore, the constituents who elected me. They learned this morning, from a newspaper published 200 miles away, that our local hospital is to opt out of the national health service. What protection can the House give me against that announcement?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I have to say to hon. Members—[Interruption.] Order. Hon. Members cannot get up when I am speaking.
The hon. Lady asked what protection was available for Back Benchers. She could have asked a private notice question this morning, but, to the best of my knowledge, none was submitted to Madam Speaker. The avenues in this House are legion. Hon. Members have been here a long time and they know that what they should not and cannot do is continually to challenge the Chair on a policy issue, which is an argument between the Opposition and the Government—[Interruption.] Order. I understand the strength of feeling and I am sure that Madam Speaker would also understand it. However, the House succeeds only if hon. Members respect the Chair.
Since hon. Members have now put their views twice and with considerable conviction, and having, I imagine, gained enormous media coverage, I hope that we can now move on to the scheduled debate. [Interruption.] Order. The subject of delays in the commercial courts is every bit as important as trust hospitals—[Interruption.] Order. I will take a last point of order from the Opposition Front Bench. My understanding is that negotiations are continuing through the usual channels—[Interruption.] Order. Hon. Members may disagree with their Front Bench, but my information is that negotiations are continuing.
§ Mrs. Fyfe
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thank you for your great courtesy and helpfulness this morning. However, we have just learnt that no Minister will come to the House to make a statement—[HON. MEMBERS: "Disgraceful."] As my hon. Friends say, it is disgraceful. Ministers have had ample opportunity to come to the House, but they have not done so. We can only register our utter contempt for such behaviour. The Government have shown contempt for the House, for the people of Scotland and for the people who use the national health service.
We will have to continue with our points outside the Chamber. We do not want to disrupt the time of other hon. Members who have debates today. We do not want to hurt their the feelings or damage the interests of their constituents. We have used this opportunity to put our points and it is a pity that no Minister has had the guts to come here to discuss the matter with us.