HC Deb 23 April 1993 vol 223 cc667-93

'.—(1) Each newspaper shall make available for public inspection at its registered office a copy of any editorial or journalistic guidance provided for the use of its staff.

(2) Such guidance shall be open to inspection during the normal working hours of the company.'—[Mr. Peter Bottomley.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

12.53 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

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

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Early-day motion 1809, tabled by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), was mentioned earlier. The hon. Gentleman has just entered the Chamber and said that he was distressed as the movers of amendments to his Bill should have spoken to him before. I find that an amazing cheek as he had never mentioned anything to me about tabling his early-day motion, which is full of gross irregularities. The amendment tabled to it in the names of my hon. Friends helps to put the record right. But I have received representations from an enormous number of organisations and it is grossly wrong to suggest that I have been approached only by News International. The hon. Member for Hammersmith knows perfectly well that representations have been made from many organisations. I have offered to show him my files. I have in my hand representations from the Newspaper Publishers Association, which included eight newspaper groups. These groups include Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, News International, the Telegraph, the Observer, the Financial Times, the Guardian and Manchester Evening News, Mirror Group Newspapers and Newspaper Publishing.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

How does the hon. Gentleman's point relate to new clause 1, which is the subject of the present debate?

Mr. Thurnham

My point of order relates to the Bill and to the way in which the hon. Member for Hammersmith has tabled an early-day motion regarding my conduct. What it says is grossly wrong. I should like you, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be fully aware of its gross inaccuracies and to make it clear to the House that I do not consider myself to have been used by News International. I have taken advantage of all the representations sent to me. News International is only one of eight newspaper groups that have made representations to me through the Newspaper Publishers Association.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is unfair to you, because it is not really a point of order for you; but if you are considering it as a point of order, you will bear in mind the fact that we are allowed to table early-day motions at the Table Office for consideration by the Speaker when hon. Members are named in them. In my EDM I merely regret what the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East has done. There is nothing morally wrong with it, as I have often said. Indeed, I said that in Committee. All that I am doing is regretting the hon. Gentleman's actions. It would be amazing if we did not regret such things.

Madam Deputy Speaker

I have heard enough to know that this is not strictly a point of order for me. If hon. Members want to raise the point in the course of the debate when it is germane to the new clause or amendment under discussion, I will allow that, but I shall listen with close attention and jump from a great height on anyone who speaks irrelevantly.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I draw an analogy with "Erskine May", which provides guidance on what is acceptable behaviour in the House. "Erskine May" suggests that an hon. Member who intends to say something critical about another hon. Member gives him notice. I do not suggest that we go quite as far as that with journalism. I do not suggest that newspapers have to inform someone in advance if they intend to criticise him. But it is wise to follow that convention in the House.

If, say, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) wants to accuse my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) of—to use his own strong word—colluding with a private sector body, I would regard it as right to follow the conventions and to ask my hon. Friend whether he minds and, even if he does mind, whether the statement is accurate. The fact that the hon. Gentleman failed to check the accuracy of his allegation puts him at grave risk of being caught by his own Bill—except that he is not an editor, proprietor or journalist.

It is not for me to criticise the selection of amendments, but I note that my proposal to call this the Press Control Bill was not accepted for discussion. For the purposes of the debate, however, let us call it that—

Mr. Soley

The clearest possible example of the sort of inaccuracy that the hon. Gentleman describes comes in the amendment in which he states that the National Union of Journalists opposes the Bill. It does not. Having considered the Bill more carefully—that is more than the hon. Gentleman has done—the NUJ is now in favour of it. so that inaccuracy can be corrected in precisely the way allowed for by my Bill. Matters of opinion cannot be—that is the difference.

Mr. Bottomley

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying two things at once. Earlier, I said that I was not a good enough politician to face in two directions at once. The hon. Gentleman is going one better.

The press is as important to democracy as is the House of Commons; there is no dispute about that. In the House we have virtually no controls over what hon. Members say. We have virtually unlimited privilege. We can call someone a liar, a thief or a murderer. We can say that he holds unpleasant opinions. This power is seldom abused, for various reasons. A person who goes over the top too often gets disregarded. Some of us may be disregarded without having to do that, but it is an alternative way of reaching the shelf of bypassed Members. We have to face criticism and have our credibility tested.

My argument would be that a newspaper that too often wrongly uses whatever freedom it has will lose credibility, market share and influence. People contribute to newspapers for one of two reasons—they want either to make money or to have influence. Often, what they want and what they get are not the same. Lord Beaverbrook was always after propaganda. I can think of few successful campaigns with which he was associated, but that did not stop him going on for decade after decade, recruiting journalists who were specialists in vituperation. It is a matter of congratulation for Michael Foot that he was recruited on those grounds, not because his views were the same as those of Lord Beaverbrook. In fact, they disagreed on almost everything except the fun of strong argument.

1 pm

There is no argument in favour of a newspaper going in for inaccuracies. It would be marvellous if they could be as accurate and discriminating in their political and social reporting as they are in their sports reporting. A newspaper that was wrong about who had won the boxing or the football match, or about the ratio of wickets to runs, would soon be laughed out of the news stands. People would no longer buy it. However, it would not look to newspapers to follow the standards set by Members of Parliament because we have had an example this morning —that of the hon. Member for Hammersmith—of an hon. Member returning to the Chamber and telling us what had gone on in his absence. Perhaps he, like me, should have been a journalist.

I should declare one or two interests. I earn occasional sums of money from writing—not normally very much, especially when my editor is Mr. Auberon Waugh. I have had my legal expenses paid by various parts of the media. I am grateful for that, but I hope that they do not make it necessary again. I am prepared to ring up the newspapers and criticise, as I did yesterday with The Sun. I asked to speak to the editor and I was told that Mr. Kelvin McKenzie was away on holiday. I thought that he never went on holiday, but I left my complaint with his secretary.

We can look for examples in large newspapers as well as small ones of articles giving misleading impressions. For example, The Times diary yesterday reproduced part of a story from the BBC staff magazine, which said that Mr. John Birt had a new bathroom at work. However, Ariel gave the explanation for that, which was that the plumbing throughout the building had been changed. For a newspaper to put in the joke element and hold someone up to scorn is fair game, but it would be better if it were to publish a correction. It would also have been better if The Times had bothered to put in a correction when it described Lord Runcie, when Archbishop of Canterbury, as not being able to make up his mind about the Falklands campaign. Lord Runcie was clear at the time, and in written publications afterwards, that he supported throwing the Argentine invasion forces out of the Falklands. In many sectors, one can provide examples where newspapers do not live up to the standards that they have set themselves.

Mr. Soley

I should like the hon. Gentleman to concentrate on more serious examples. Most of the less serious examples get resolved easily and, where they do not, there is no great problem. I am worried about stories like that which appeared in The Sun at the time of the tragic Jamie Bulger murder. The headline said, "Boy, 12 held for Jamie murder". The police said at the time, and it was in the story: Nobody in this police station is being held for Jamie's murder. The story and headline lead to the harassment of the family of that boy, who were in no position to complain. It could have led to wrongful conviction, as it has in the case of many other stories. Can we focus on the more serious aspects? By trying to talk out the Bill, the hon. Gentleman is not only continuing his practice—he has voted against press freedom many times and I can give the examples if he likes—but denying families such as the one involved here the right to have stories corrected. In that case, the boy had never been held for murder.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That was rather a long intervention.

Mr. Bottomley

It is not my purpose to justify mistakes, just as it is not my purpose to justify the mistakes that the hon. Gentleman made earlier. I would criticise the newspaper. If people argue that we must have a system that deals with newspapers in a way that is different from how it deals with others, so that they can never make mistakes, we should have a further debate on that.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Robert Key)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the Evening Standard, which I gather is currently on the streets, there is a definitive report of our debate and its outcome? Apparently, we are in the middle of a furious Commons row.

Mr. Bottomley

Well! I think that it is a very good thing that newspaper journalists will not always reveal their sources. I shall not accuse anybody about where that report may have come from. I do not believe that it came from a Member of this House.

Mr. Soley

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point and turns to—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Before we turn to anything, may I remind the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) that this is not a Second Reading debate. We are debating a new clause. The hon. Gentleman must address himself strictly to the merits of the new clause.

Mr. Soley

I understand that ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I anticipated it, to some extent, for I felt that we were going a bit wide. Nevertheless, I am all in favour of that. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) voted recently in favour of journalists being made to reveal their sources. That is one of the problems with the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984 and why Channel 4 Box Productions ended up in court last year. The hon. Gentleman voted for it. He never spoke out against it at any stage.

Mr. Bottomley

I do not dispute that. That was not, I thought, what we were discussing. Can I just make one remark on what we were discussing—the standards that journalists should reach. The hon. Gentleman held up the front page of a small-sized newspaper. My criticism of newspapers, besides the specific point that the hon. Gentleman has fairly made, is that 240 two-year-olds die unnatural deaths each year, most of them predictable, most of them avoidable, and most of the means by which they die being given virtually no attention whatever. If I were to make a criticism of the media, it would be that they report unusual incidents, such as motorway fog crashes. Under the guidelines, which I believe should be open to inspection and which is the subject of the new clause, the media should be asked to think about their role in trying to understand common incidents which lead to avoidable disadvantage, distress and handicap.

Each year, an average of seven people die in motorway fog crashes. Each day, an average of 14 people die in built-up areas. Which gets the attention? Which gets coverage on television or on the front page? It is the rare motorway fog crash. Which death of a two-year-old gets all the attention? It is the rare occasion, such as we have seen in the north-west, that grabs the headlines. What we do not hear about are the two-year-olds who die in, if I may describe it this way, packets of 16 or 20 each year in predictable ways.

It is not my purpose to stand here and point to all the problems with the media. There are problems with the media, but the House needs to understand that legislation is unlikely to be successful. If that course were pursued and people broke the legislation, there would be a growing demand, as I said when I ended my speech on Second Reading, for barbed wire around the pen.

I am holding the "Index on Censorship" to which the hon. Member for Hammersmith referred, as well as to the prevention of terrorism provisions and other measures. Some of them could be debated on their merits, but the general point that I make in the new clause is that we should ask proprietors, editors and those who control journalists and newspapers to tell us what standards they are after. I would not want such a provision to be incorporated in the Bill, because I do not want the Bill to be passed. My first words on Second Reading were that I did not want the Bill to get through. My aim is not to talk about it, but to destroy it. That follows the line I took when I voted against John Browne's privacy Bill—not because I do not believe in the right to privacy, but because I believe that legislation does not make all people perfect. It does not work.

So we come back to the question of what we would do. In this country, 30 per cent. of males aged 30 have already been convicted of a criminal offence for which they could have gone to gaol for six months or more. That number of people will be added to by journalists, sub-editors, editors, publishers and distributors. It is far better to ask ourselves what it is that we are trying to reduce. We are trying to reduce inaccuracy and unacceptable intrusions into privacy. We also have to decide what our approach will be to the casualties—those who carry the cost of the free press. To some extent, as I said at the TSB Forum on the power of the press yesterday—the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) was also present to hear the distinguished editor of the Financial Times, Richard Lambert, speak—we have to accept that trying to have the press with total accuracy is like trying to have war without casualties: it does not happen. We must ask ourselves how best we can reduce the number of casualties without circumscribing or curtailing the press too much.

I do not agree with all the criticisms that have been made of the new Press Complaints Commission; it has done a far better job than has been suggested. It would work better if we tackled the problem from the point of view of what the proprietor and editor are willing to tolerate and what standards the journalists are trying to maintain.

Let us consider the point of view of the proprietor. It is perfectly reasonable for the BBC to produce guidelines on news, current affairs, documentaries, magazine programmes, features and factual programmes. Newspapers should be encouraged to do the same. I pay tribute to the South East London and Kentish Mercury Group, which regularly prints corrections on page two. It clears up ambiguities and corrects omissions and no one thinks less of it for doing so. I also pay tribute to a journalist, Jerry Green, of the Eltham and Sidcup News Shopper. He is one of few journalists whom I know who has never got a thing wrong. He checks and double checks. His news sense may not always be the same as mine, but he uses information that is true and accurate and makes it clear when he is quoting an opinion. If that standard can be achieved by a journalist in my constituency, it is the standard that others should be aiming for. The disagreement between the hon. Member for Hammersmith and me is that he and the Select Committee on National Heritage believe that it is possible to sew up the process of news gathering, of news tasting and of news editing in such a way as to ensure that mistakes and deliberate actions do not happen. I do not think that it is like that.

Mr. Soley

I should hate the hon. Gentleman to address an argument that does not exist. I agree with him. I have been encouraging newspapers to run correction columns because it is not always possible to get things right. The first article of the code of the Press Complaints Commission calls for accuracy. It tells newspapers that they should make a correction and adjudicates on it. The argument is not whether inaccuracies appear, but how they are corrected and, above all, who adjudicates. Editors adjudicate on themselves: that is an issue which the hon. Gentleman must address.

Mr. Bottomley

I think that, in the main, editors should adjudicate on themselves and that the majority on the Press Complaints Commission should be editors because that would be the best way of exerting the most pressure.

I want to keep the attention of the House for a moment on the benefits of leaving responsibility where it is. I know that I have been affected by the relative success in reducing drinking and driving in Britain. That was socially acceptable; people often knew that it was wrong, but continued to do it or tolerated other people around them doing it. The incidence is still too high, but it has been reduced at the levels where it has the most consequences by more than two thirds in the past 15 years by social change —by what people are willing to accept. If people are willing to discuss the matter explictly and to involve editors, proprietors and journalists—although not particularly the NUJ because any self-respecting journalist would reject the decisions of its executive and most NUJ journalists do not know what is being decided in their name—and if the House can make it clear that the group that will be most concerned to protect the freedoms of the press are Members of Parliament and that the press will be the next keenest group, we shall get a long way further forward. By giving people responsibility and by talking about it openly, we can reduce most of the problems.

Proprietors should have a better reason than I have heard for not having a published code that they want people to follow. Editors should be pretty sure that their staff know, and are reminded of, the standards that the newspaper sets itself. Richard Lambert said that the Financial Times relies on its reputation for accuracy, and the paper gets upset when it gets anything wrong. The Reader's Digest believes in not only accuracy but punctuation and getting everything right. It checks facts twice, which is one of the reasons why it is one of the most read and best selling periodicals in the country, but producing the Reader's Digest is a very different operation from producing a daily newspaper.

I think that the hon. Member for Hammersmith will confirm that the major problem is not with the local or regional press but with the national press. We should be clear that we are talking not only about small newspapers but about the broadsheets which have the same capacity to be inaccurate. Let us agree that we are talking mainly about inaccuracy or severe distortion. I am not concerned about newspapers being partial, biased or propagandist.

1.15 pm
Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

The new clause refers to editorial or journalistic guidance. Prior to the Calcutt report on privacy, the whole debate was occasion by the incident with Gorden Kaye when someone from the Sunday Sport burst into his hospital bedroom and behaved appallingly. The editor later described it as a great old-fashioned scoop. Does the guidance referred to in the new clause include such incidents which are nothing to do with accuracy—I am sure it is accurate to say that a journalist from the paper behaved in that way—but simply involves appalling behaviour?

Mr. Bottomley

The BBC's guidance—I recommend that hon. Members and people outside read it, but not adopt it if they work in the media—makes it clear that there should be good reason, and that the matter should be referred upwards, if someone intends to break the normal guidelines.

There are difficulties in trying to legislate for some related issues because if people are seeking evidence of serious wrong-doing, they often have to work with secret microphones or to film secretly. I do not claim to have sufficient knowledge always to put the dividing line where it should be, but it is like telling the difference between an elephant and a hippopotamus: one can normally distinguish one from the other, and in the same way, one can usually tell whether something is acceptable or not. In matters about which a significant part of the general public disagrees with an editor or a proprietor, having a debate or argument makes sense.

I have twice tried, unsuccessfully, to put three other groups on the same basis as journalists. The first was political parties in respect of their advertising. The Advertising Standards Authority said that it was impossible to determine whether a political party's advertising is capable of being judged right or wrong and it is, therefore, not covered by its standards.

The second group was lawyers in court. With the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald) and any other lawyers present, I believe that lawyers spend a lot of time putting ideas to people in such a way as to try to get them to agree to something that is not true. They say, "I put it to you …" when they know perfectly well that what they are about to say is highly unlikely or a contradiction of the truth, but they say it because they have been instructed to say it or have made it up themselves, and wish to test people's arguments. It is impractical to require lawyers in court always to avoid doing that. It sometimes means substituting their judgment for what they have been instructed, like the journalist who has written the story in the Evening Standard about our proceedings today.

The third group is Members of Parliament. It is not a serious suggestion, but it would be interesting to consider how we could live up to standards that many people require in terms of avoiding privacy disclosures or inaccuracy. How might we allow a member of the general public to say that, on Friday 23 April, Peter Bottomley said something that was ambiguous, damaging or wrong, or a combination of those things? It is not practical, so we come back to what is most likely to have an effect in the medium term.

It can be agreed that legislation will not always work. Even if we had legislation covering the limited question of how to enforce a judgment made by a Press Complaints Commission—let alone an authority—what happens if and when an editor disagrees?

I give as an example a hypothetical case of a journalist who, after someone has been convicted of an IRA murder, says that the person who has been convicted is innocent. That journalist would be flatly contradicting the judgment of the original court, of a jury, of the Court of Appeal and of the House of Lords. The fact that five, 10 or 15 years later it becomes clear that there has been a gross miscarriage of justice does not help anyone trying to make a decision about a complaint that might have been made about that report when it was first published.

We should be very careful about putting legislative requirements on the media. We could debate the many requirements that already exist. I am still waiting for a letter about the existing restrictions on the media. I forget whether it should be from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for National Heritage, from the Home Office or from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster who is responsible for the citizens charter. There are probably about 200 restrictions in one form or another—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order I do not see how this relates to the new clause.

Mr. Bottomley

We are talking about whether it is possible for my proposal for having journalistic and editorial guidance to be a substitute for legislation. I do not intend to explain at length what is in my mind. As I understand it, we are discussing a Bill which would introduce legislative and statutory requirements. I propose a substitute for that. In doing so, I may occasionally stray towards the limits of order. I fully understand the guidance, correction and instructions from the Chair. I believe that it is better to concentrate on what proprietors, editors and journalists say are the standards to which they want to live up.

I go one stage further. Part of the instructions should be that when there is a significant ambiguity or inaccuracy, the periodical or newspaper concerned should say so at once. That would reduce any subsequent damages if there were a case for defamation or for libel. I suspect that that could deal with one or two cases that may yet come to court. In the case in which I was involved, if the editor had said straight away, "We did not mean to say that and we now understand that it was wrong", that would have been a standard met by the media which would have got rid of the need to employ lawyers.

The purpose of our debate today is not to reduce the costs of accuracy to newspapers. It is probably to raise the costs to them of accuracy. We are talking about newspapers, unless they are like the Sunday Sport which is losing circulation fast, with 70,000 copies out of circulation during the past year, and which will disappear from news stands relatively soon. We are talking about newspapers that class themselves as newspapers. If we ask how many times The Sun, to pick one example, is being sued for libel now compared with the figure for five or 10 years ago, the answer is very seldom.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

That is no measure.

Mr. Bottomley

The hon. Gentleman says that that is no measure. I believe that it is relevant.

Mr. Corbett

I say that it is no measure because many people who feel wronged and damaged by the antics of the sewer Sun cannot meet the legal bills involved in taking the paper on. The Sun well knows that, which is why it abuses its position.

Mr. Bottomley

That is not relevant to my remark that fewer people are suing The Sun. I suspect that if Lord McGregor were speaking in this debate, he would say that the Press Complaints Commission is getting fewer complaints from ordinary people. That is one of the reasonable tests of whether the pressures are working.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the editor of The Daily Star has said that as a result of peer pressure within the Press Complaints Commission, he has now disciplined his newspaper so that there are fewer complaints than there were before? Self-regulation is taking effect.

Mr. Bottomley

That is the case. I do not want to take up too much time as we lost so much time with points of order from the hon. Member for Hammersmith during our debate on the Road Traffic (Driving Instruction by Disabled Persons) Bill.

If we get rid of the idea that comprehensive legislation will bring a comprehensive solution, we can engage in debate about the standards to which proprietors, editors and journalists hold themselves. I recommend the method of criticising the BBC, for example, and saying, "What you did in the 'Real Lives' programme was not in accordance with your own guidelines." The BBC would then have to say that it did not want to pay attention to its guidelines, that the guidelines were wrong or that it got it wrong. I think that there is a far more effective way of proceeding.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith has rightly raised questions at his own press conferences and hearings, and I congratulate him on that. Some of the cases have come up again in the Select Committee on National Heritage. Where there are problems, they need attention; they do not necessarily need legislation. In so many areas, we have gone from having our awareness raised, to saying, "They should not do it", to legislating. The third stage ought to involve those concerned saying, "I should not do it." The fourth stage should be, "I intend not to do it"; and the last should be, "We don't get things wrong and when we do we are very angry about it; we say so and put it right"—which some editors already can say. That is what we are trying to achieve.

What John Browne proposed was wrong and would not have worked. What the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) proposed in his Right of Reply Bill would not have worked, and the present Bill would not work. My new clause would work, but I do not believe that it needs a Bill to go with it. It should be a requirement that people in the media place upon themselves, and I hope that that is what they will do.

Mr. Soley

I am in some difficulty, because the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) went rather wide. I shall attempt to explain what I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to do by means of the new clause. I shall address the points he made as briefly as possible to allow other hon. Members to have their say, although I do not think that time should trouble us too much, given that hon. Members took so much time on the previous Bill with the deliberate intention of talking my Bill out.

Mr. Heald

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Soley

Yes, but let me just say that I have that from Conservative Members—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. We have gone through all this before. We have had quite enough of it. Perhaps the hon. Member for Hammersmith will address himself to the new clause.

Mr. Soley

I shall be delighted to, Madam Deputy Speaker, but in that case I shall not be able to give way to the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, North (Mr. Heald).

Madam Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is under no obligation to give way.

Mr. Soley

In that case, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall refuse—rather reluctantly, because I always prefer to take interventions.

I will give the hon. Member for Eltham credit on one issue and one issue only: he comes to the debate with a genuine belief in press freedom. I must say, however, that he is one of the most confused speakers on the subject that I have ever heard. I have to say to him, too, that his voting record on press freedom is bad. I have checked how he has voted on press freedom in the past. He voted against the defence of press freedom on a number of critical issues, including the issues that he raised just now when he referred to the ability of journalists to protect their sources. The journalist who was fined £75,000 last year was told in court that, if it happened again—that is, if he protected his sources again—he would face much more serious consequences. The hon. Member for Eltham never spoke out against that; he voted for it. He voted for the Official Secrets Act 1989 and for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which allow the police to confiscate journalists' materials. He voted for all those measures, yet he talks about being in favour of press freedom.

Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman what the debate is about. It is not about whether the British press needs more regulation. I restate my view, which I have expressed many times, that the British press is over-regulated in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. We actually inhibit good investigative journalists, yet we allow individuals to be abused. The headline in The SunBoy 12 is held for Jamie Murder"— is but one example. I have already made the point that we should be looking not at the trivial cases to which the hon. Member for Eltham referred but at those much more critical cases. We are talking about a family whose son was taken to the police station to be questioned as a possible witness. Even The Sun quoted the police correctly as saying, We do not hold the murderer in this police station". However, as hon. Members can see for themselves, the headline was: Boy 12 is held for Jamie Murder. The hon. Member for Eltham claims that it is not a matter of who is doing the best thing, the worst thing or how to improve matters. He is saying that the people concerned, and that 12-year-old, have no rights. I believe that they have rights. We could extend those rights by saying that they could sue for libel. However, we were talking about a family which was in no position to complain effectively—

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

1.30 pm
Mr. Soley

If the hon. Lady will give me time to finish, I will give way. It is very important that she hears the argument through.

The family to which I referred was very vulnerable not least because it had no stable accommodation. How is that family supposed to sue for libel when it will not be able to obtain legal aid as it is being moved onto other accommodation? How can that family go to the Press Complaints Commission when the complaint must be put in writing? Can I take the matter up for them? No, I cannot because I am a third party. No one else can take the matter up on their behalf—other than perhaps a lawyer if the family situation is stable enough and it has the necessary income, which it does not.

The amazing thing about the story—

Lady Olga Maitland

Will the hon. Gentleman give way now?

Mr. Soley

I will give way to the hon. Lady when I have completed this point.

According to the new clause, all these issues should be a matter of guidance for editors. There is no problem about that. That is happening now.

Lady Olga Maitland

Give way.

Mr. Soley

I will give way in just a moment. The hon. Lady should be patient. Conservative Members are terribly impatient today.

I am grateful to the people in News International who officially and unofficially have kept me well informed about the views of News International—[Interruption.] Conservative Members would probably like me to be taken to court for not revealing my sources. The hon. Member for Eltham would certainly like that as he supported the legislation to allow that.

In a news release headed News International Supports Press Self-Regulation News International states that editors today made a further commitment to self-regulation of the press by their decision to incorporate, or continue to incorporate the Press Complaints Commission's new code of conduct into the journalists' handbook of each title. That is something similar to what the hon. Member for Eltham seeks to achieve in the new clause. The news release continues: Compliance with the code will be a condition of appointment, and breach of the code will be a disciplinary matter. That news release is dated 27 January 1993. However, the article to which I referred appeared in The Sun on 17 February. Has the editor been disciplined? Has he been fired? Has he even been told off? Has he put it right? No, he has not. Despite the editor's code, he published the article. However, the family concerned has lost all its rights. The child involved could, as in many of the cases in recent years—and this is one reason why I introduced the Bill—have been wrongfully convicted. We do not have the right to put innocent people in prison in the name of press freedom.

Lady Olga Maitland

The hon. Gentleman appears to be making enormously sweeping statements. With regard to the headline in the newspaper to which the hon. Gentleman referred, how does he know for a fact that the family made a complaint? Does he know for a fact that the family wrote to the Press Complaints Commission?

Mr. Soley

If the hon. Lady considers the family's background she will see that I used my words cautiously. I do not wish to label the family and I would certainly not say about it the kind of things that The Sun said. I am satisfied that the family is not in a position to pursue a complaint.

The issue is very important. If we reach the appropriate point in the debate, I could mention other examples—if I were to quote them now you would rightly rule me out of order Madam Deputy Speaker—of the way in which the Press Complaints Commission is totally inadequate to help people who are not well equipped, for whatever reason, to make formal written complaints of the type required by the PCC, and who do not have the safeguard of a legal person or adviser to help them. Many people are in that position.

If the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) would like to pursue the matter with me afterwards, I will explain the problem in much more detail. However, I repeat: have some sensitivity for the family involved; look at the original story. If the hon. Lady has any sensitivity, she might begin to understand why I am confident that the family could not pursue the matter on its own. That is the point.

Let us be clear about what the hon. Gentleman seeks to do in his amendment: Each newspaper will make available for public inspection at its registered office a copy of any editorial or journalistic guidance provided for the use of its staff … Such guidance shall be open to inspection during normal working hours of the company. That is perfectly reasonable. It is right that newspapers should be encouraged to do it. But it should not be a matter for legislation. The hon. Gentleman is determined to put that provision in the Bill. I am not too worried about it. I would not lose any sleep if it were included. But it is not the appropriate way to do it. The hon. Gentleman, in his muddled thinking on the matter, does not understand the dangers in this.

My Bill focuses on accuracy and does not fine newspapers—all the suggestions by the ombudsman, David Calcutt and so on include fining newspapers—because, if we go down that road, we restrict press freedom because the threat of the fine can worry genuine and good investigative journalists. We must make the newspaper put right what it has got wrong.

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that newspapers have good practices. As he said, there are many such practices, especially in local newspapers. Newspapers run columns for corrections and outline editorial policy. That is good: it must be encouraged. Indeed, I am pleased that it is happening more often as a result of my campaign. That is part of what I am about. It is one of the reasons why I can say that, win or lose today, the fight will go on. More importantly, it has already achieved a great deal, and I am determined not to let go of it for that reason.

The press will not be allowed to continue getting away with the disgraceful lies which rip away the life of a family, as in the case of the headline I referred to earlier, and at the same time create a situation in which people can face wrongful conviction. Dealing again with the hon. Gentleman's amendment, we must remember that having guidance is not enough. The case of the Taylor sisters is going before the courts on appeal partly on the basis of press reporting.

Unlike the National Union of Journalists which did a U-turn on the matter, the hon. Gentleman has not thought the matter through. We must have something that stops such disgraceful lies being told. The answer is not to fine or punish in some way: it is simply to say that if the newspapers get it wrong, they must put it right. People say to me, as the hon. Gentleman did, that we cannot have accuracy because it is someone else's mind, but I did not invent the idea of adjudicating on accuracy. The editors and proprietors invented it: they put it in the code of the Press Complaints Commission. If they cannot be accurate, they should take it out of the code. But it is there. My only argument then is if they say that it can be done, if they give adjudication the credence of being article 1 in their code —not way down the list—it should be seen to be independent.

The hon. Gentleman should know from his good work in the alcohol and driving field, that it would be unfair if, when he went to court and gave his evidence, the police gave their evidence against him and then took off their helmets, climbed into the judge's box, put on a wig and said that they would now adjudicate. The hon. Gentleman would say that that was unfair. I am simply saying that if the editors adjudicate on their own errors, can we be surprised if people do not have confidence in the system? If the editors had adjudicated on the story I referred to, could we have confidence in it? I have told the editors many times that it does not matter if they give the right ruling: their problem is that they do not have credibility because they are not seen as independent. That is the reason why I want to set up a body which has some independence and, above all, involves working journalists but not so many editors. If such a body is dominated by editors, it is dominated by people who have moved away from the journalistic world into the managerial world. That is important because they then also have an interest in circulation.

The hon. Member for Eltham made the important point that a paper can lose readers if it gets it wrong. That is why—he may already know the explanation, I do not know—local papers tend to be better than national papers. They are much closer to their community. The national papers do not care so much.

The Sun got it badly wrong on Hillsborough and burned its fingers. So no one in Merseyside buys The Sun now. That is the only example of which I am aware of a national paper losing readers. We have a duty to protect the rights of people such as the 12-year-old child and his family to whom I referred and other people like them. Unless Conservative Members address that issue seriously, we shall continue to lose press freedom in Britain. They should remember that we have been warned by the International Press Institute that we are losing press freedom as a result of some of the acts to which I have referred. At the same time, abuses will continue.

Therefore, the argument is not that an amendment such as that be included in my Bill; it is that such an amendment should be included in any code of practice whether drawn up by my body or any other body. But that is not an alternative.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

The hon. Gentleman said that no one in Merseyside bought The Sun. If I could show him on a future occasion that that was untrue and people in Merseyside bought The Sun, would he publish an apology and correct his statement?

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman makes the mistake of thinking that just because I say something which is not technically 100 per cent. true, we must immediately—

Mr. Peter Atkinson

That is not the point.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman obviously thinks that. I ask him to hear me through. I have been over the ground many times. There are two answers. First, the hon. Gentleman is technically right. Of course, someone on Merseyside buys The Sun. The difference is that my words do not go through the letterboxes of millions of people. They may go out through the media. I can be challenged on them.

The problem with newspapers is that they stay in print and are referred to and no one can answer them back. No one came forward and said that the 12-year-old to whom I referred was not being held for murder. But the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) stood up and said, "You are not right." That is what the Bill is about. The argument is not merely between the two sides of the House. One of my hon. Friends could have picked me up on what I said. People can correct us here in the House. Inasmuch as people outside hear what goes on in the House, they can hear the correction if another hon. Member makes it. They cannot hear the correction of what the newspaper said about the 12-year-old child.

I am simply providing a mechanism which operates for people such as the family to which I referred regardless of the fact that they cannot operate the existing system.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

My point may have been trivial but the hon. Gentleman seeks to force on the press precisely such trivial detail. My point illustrates that absolutely.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman has not thought it through. Accuracy is the first article in the Press Complaints Commission code. I did not put it in. I did not say, "I think I will do accuracy. No one has ever heard of it before, so I shall invent it." I knew that the article was in the code. The Press Complaints Commission adjudicates on it. Am I right? It adjudicates whether the matter is trivial or not. The hon. Gentleman does not deny it.

If the commission adjudicates, the argument is not whether we can have accuracy or even whether we should want it. It is about who adjudicates. That is what the hon. Gentleman must address. I am offering a method of getting it right. The method has been well tried. The BBC and the independent television and radio companies operate according to such a code. No one goes round the world—the hon. Member for Eltham ought to consider this point—saying that the BBC and the independent television and radio companies do not have a high standard of accuracy. No one says that they do not do good investigative journalism or that they are not fair, decent or good. People have a high regard for the British electronic media. Sadly, and undeservedly for some parts of it, the British press has a poor reputation.

When I go abroad, people say, "We envy you the BBC and ITV, but how on earth have you ended up with the tabloid press? We do not have such a press." They are right.

Lady Olga Maitland

I am not sure that I go along with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation that the electronic media has the same validity and basis as the press. Television stations, unlike newspapers, are governed by a franchise. That discipline is almost written into their being.

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Mr. Soley

It is interesting to note the evidence that was given to my Committee by investigative journalists who were opposed to my Bill, who had worked in television and the press. One was asked why inaccurate reporting was not a problem in the electronic media and he said that there was a culture of accuracy in the BBC. The hon. Lady should note that.

Those in the electronic media tend to check their stories much more carefully than certain sections of the press. The good newspapers do the same, but some newspapers do not. The problem for all newspapers is that they still have not learnt that people have the basic right to expect their news to be reported accurately or, if Conservative Members prefer the language of Baroness Thatcher, that people have customer rights.

When one buys a newspaper it should, perhaps unusually or surprisingly if it is part of the tabloid press, contain some news. If one wants to call a publication something else, that is fine, but a newspaper should contain news, not disinformation. No one is disputing the fact that newspapers can get things wrong sometimes, but there should be a mechanism to put that right. Newspapers should not be fined or closed down, but that is what will happen if we follow Sir David Calcutt's recommendations about ombudsmen and others.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, but television news has fewer problems because it deals with fewer stories and it uses fewer words. Television does not have to compete for attention on the news stand and therefore inaccurate reporting is inherently less of a problem for the electronic media.

Mr. Soley

That is right. I may be asked for my opinion on camera and I am responsible for what I say. That does not mean that the television station has to correct me if I am wrong; it is simply reporting me and if I get it wrong it is my responsibility. The hon. Member for Eltham, however, should not underestimate the culture of accuracy in the electronic media. The difficulty is in creating that same culture in the press. We are trying to do it in the wrong way.

The hon. Member for Eltham, who moved the new clause, will vote for privacy legislation when it comes before the House. We will then be left with yet another restriction on press freedom, which will not work particularly well. That legislation will not protect the rich and the powerful as much as some people fear because there will be a public interest let-out clause. It will protect some people, however, and I am not against the principle behind privacy legislation. I will not, however, vote for legislation of the type that I fear unless it is matched by a freedom of information Act or a press freedom Act. That is what the National Heritage Select Committee has recommended.

I suspect that hon. Members will vote for privacy legislation as blindly as they voted for the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the prevention of terrorism Acts, the Official Secrets Act 1989 and all the other Acts that have restricted press freedom. They will troop through the Lobby, but they will then ask why we have lost press freedom. We will have done so because they are blind to the problem—too much regulation of the wrong type that does not solve the problems I have highlighted.

If the hon. Member for Eltham agrees with me about that he should rethink his opposition to my Bill so that rights are given to people such as the 12-year-old kid in Liverpool and others who have suffered wrongful conviction—I have many other examples in my files. Hon. Members should consider such serious cases and recognise that I am not arguing about whether one can adjudicate on accuracy; I am simply arguing about who does it and how. That is what the argument should be about and that is why individual members of the Government have said to me, "You are right. This is not about privacy, but about accuracy. That is what matters." The new clause is not very helpful and should not be included in the legislation, but if the House agrees to, I shall not object as it will not detract from the Bill.

Mr. Thurnham

I hope that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) feels that we are having a useful debate—we certainly did earlier. I am not sure whether it could be described as a furious row, but the temperature has risen a little. One or two Opposition Members are now present. There are no Liberals present and only four or five Labour Members.

I am grateful that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson) is present as it allows me to remind her of what she said in Standing Committee. She quoted some examples and said that she would come back to me with accurate information. I know that we are all busy in the House, but I do not believe that I have received that information. If I have and I have omitted to read it, I apologise, but I do not believe that the hon. Lady has come back with the accurate information that she promised on 3 March, as recorded at column 27 of the report of Standing Committee F.

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if I left him with a misunderstanding. I thought that the issue had been adequately covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), when he said that there could be no third-party intervention in the case to which the hon. Gentleman referred. If the hon. Gentleman is anxious for that information I shall make my best efforts and present it to him.

Mr. Thurnham


Madam Deputy Speaker

Before the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) continues his speech, will he explain how what he has already said relates to new clause 1?

Mr. Thurnham

It relates to new clause 1 and the need for accuracy, a code of conduct and the ability of the public to inspect, at registered offices, a copy of any editorial or journalistic guidance provided for the use of staff. It must have accuracy as its first aim, as the hon. Member for Hammersmith stressed.

s I was in two minds about new clause 1 when I saw how it was drafted, because I feel that it is up to each organisation to decide how it wants to run things. Rather than have the sort of Bill that the hon. Gentleman has proposed, I would be happier to settle for the new clause. We now have the Select Committee report, which was not available when we had our debates in Standing Committee. It contains the proposal that there should be an ombudsman who, no doubt, would want to look at the editorial journalistic guidance provided to staff.

The issue at the heart of the new clause is accuracy. The hon. Member for Hammersmith quoted The Sun on the tragedy of the Jamie murder. He was right to say that The Sun was proved to be inaccurate. However, the most important aspect of that tragic murder was that, despite the fact that there were videos of the two children who were involved in the abduction, it was a week before they were identified. The community and the rest of the country were concerned that it took so long for the police to identify the children who have now been arrested. It was the delay of a week that was so serious and it was important that everyone was alerted to the case. Although the headline was proved to be wrong, it was right for the newspaper to highlight the case and the anxieties arising from it. The hon. Member for Hammersmith placed great stress on the fact that the family was wronged. I do not have the advantage of having the article in front of me, but I do not believe that it named the family.

Mr. Soley

It gave the address. The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the fact that the article was wrong was a minor point. As I said in my opening comments, the story accurately said that the police were not holding the murderer in their cells. That fact was placed way down at the bottom of the story. The police had tried to head off the story at that stage. The headline, however, was damning. I know that the hon. Gentleman has an affinity for News International, but even he cannot defend that. It is indefensible.

Mr. Thurnham

I was not going to return to the question of alleged collusion. It is, of course, absolute nonsense. I was amazed to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about his links with News International; he said that it had kept him fully informed. So if there has been any collusion it appears to have been on his part.

I think that the hon. Gentleman introduced the Bill for purely political reasons. He thinks that News International puts out a political line not in agreement with his own, so he singles it out for attack. He has singled out The Sun for attack, but it was right to highlight these issues even if it made mistakes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) said, there will be casualties. It is impossible to have news reporting on the scale that we have enjoyed without some errors at some stages of the proceedings.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham for allowing me to debate these issues. He himself has been badly wronged by the press. I have complained to the Press Complaints Commission about the way in which he was treated in one national newspaper. He seems to be able to look back on it all with remarkable good humour, but he was badly wronged. I believe that he got some sort of settlement and I hope that there will be no repetition of what happened.

I have had occasion to complain to the paper in question about another issue as well, but it seems to have improved since then. Ultimately, such matters are for the editor's judgment and that of the people who buy the papers—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument as best I can. It seems to have become a general debate on the press, whereas it should be about the new clause under consideration.

Mr. Thurnham

I apologise. I was just trying to answer some points made earlier. If I have strayed further than I should have, I am happy to desist and let others make their own points.

I am not entirely sure what is the best way to improve standards in the press, but I am certain that we do not want a statutory so-called independent press authority, as proposed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith. If we had a Bill that consisted solely of new clause 1, that might be the solution. We wait to hear more of the Government's proposals for necessary changes. I hope to hear the Minister comment on the suggested ombudsman. If an ombudsman were in place, new clause 1 could feature prominently in any legislation on this subject.

Lady Olga Maitland

I support new clause 1. As a practising journalist for 25 years I have always believed that self-regulation regulates the press most effectively.

I am a member of the NUJ. I am not employed by News International. I was reared in the great editorial tradition of Beaverbrook on the Sunday Express, under Sir John Junor. He controlled the newspaper with tight discipline and strict standards of the sort reflected in the guidelines proposed in the new clause. In the news room we were almost terrorised by the guidelines that he imposed. We could not quote someone without precisely identifying him; we had to be precise about our sources of information when explaining ourselves to the news editor; we could not fly a kite in the hope that we would get away with it.

Above all, we had to check, check and check again. We should be concerned about the kind of behaviour that has been pointed up. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Hammersmith in his frustration over the way in which the press has got out of control in some sectors. However, the Bill is a knee-jerk reaction, whereas new clause 1 would satisfactorily remedy the defects with which we are faced. The difficulties under which the press is operating—together with the rather tacky sales war between newspapers, which seems to override sober judgment on what it is suitable to print—is not helped by a knee-jerk response to that material. The main point of new clause 1 is that self-regulation would put that situation into order.

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What would come out of the Bill if it ever received Royal Assent—mercifully, it will not—is a charter to muzzle or gag the press. That fits poorly on a tremendous democratic tradition. We have to take into account not only the desire to punish the wrongdoer, but the importance of ensuring that the press, in the name of democracy, is able to expose wrong, to challenge and, by being unfettered, to speak up without fear or favour to bring wrongs to public light. I am sorry that the press was fettered when it tried to expose Robert Maxwell. It was a scandal and a tragedy that he used all the weapons at his command to gag the press.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Was the hon. Lady equally disturbed when the press was fettered—in particular, the New Statesman—when it tried to report the Zircon affair and the Government of the day sent in police to smash down the journalist's door and seize all his notes?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Lady continues, let me make the point that we are not having a general debate on the issue of press freedom or the curtailment of the press. We are looking, precisely, at a new clause.

Lady Olga Maitland

Thank you Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall return to the main point of new clause 1, which would require newspapers to provide guidelines.

Self-regulation would achieve more than would an independent press authority, set up, not as independent in the way suggested by the hon. Member for Hammersmith, but by the Government of the day, who might not be as scrupulous as the Government whom we are used to. As such a press authority would be seriously flawed, I could not possibly accept it. New clause 1 would redress the problems.

A press authority such as the one proposed would be, de facto, judge and jury. It could become an unguided missile. It could wield its powers on the basis of loosely defined duties, rather like a quasi-judicial quango. Should a Government body enforce on newspapers what they should or should not publish? It is up to newspapers to retain the powers that they already have. They are already responding to their peer group and public pressure to get their act in order. It rather reminds me of the dark days of Pravda, the Soviet truth newspaper, which was anything but.

Mr. Livingstone

It had a code of guidance.

Lady Olga Maitland

We are talking not just about accuracy, but about what is truth. Philosophers have been foxed about that since time began. That could give rise to a great deal of work for lawyers. An independent press authority would hardly inspire trust and confidence in newspaper, if it tried to be a conciliator, particularly if the newspaper knew that later the authority would adjudicate upon the complaint.

We would be aiming for the sky if we set up an independent press authority. We should seek the best and the highest standards, but I do not believe that the hon. Member for Hammersmith is going the right way about trying to impose accuracy. The IPA would become a draconian body—

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North)

Does my hon. Friend believe that the words of the new clause any editorial or journalistic guidance cover issues relating just to accuracy, or does she believe that they go wider and cover what happened in the Gorden Kaye case or in the Lady Green case, who was confronted with a prostitute in order that there could be a gimmicky story? Would that, in my hon. Friend's view, also be covered?

Lady Olga Maitland

I agree with my hon. Friend that those words should go wider than just editorial guidance on content and should include behaviour. Behaviour includes intrusion, invasiveness, snooping, photography and the bugging of telephone lines. None of those matters, regrettably, is covered by the proposed IPA.

Mr. Livingstone

Would the hon. Lady extend the code so that if a paper were approached with false information about a public figure, in order to get into circulation a damaging story about that person, it would refer the details of the attempted smear to the police? I think of the instance in 1983 when an official from Conservative central office took the Sunday Mirror journalist, Trudie Practor, out to lunch and assured her that I had been at a party where I had been sodomised by six men in succession. There was no truth in that, but it suggests a link between the Tory party and some of the worst excesses of the gutter press.

Lady Olga Maitland

I believe that all complaints should be addressed to the Press Complaints Commission. The hon. Gentleman's case would have been no better served had he been able to go to the independent press authority.

The IPA would place emphasis on factual accuracy. The guidelines in new clause 1 are capable of dealing with that. Interestingly, Donald Trelford said that he could perfectly well put his house in order. He also made the point to the National Heritage Select Committee that it would be undesirable for people appointed by the Government to decide what is true.

I recall that on Second Reading the distinguished hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—not someone with whom I agree in general—asked how one can define accuracy and said that one person's perception of fact is very different from another's. In this regard, some of us believe that the hon. Gentleman's Bill would provide a lucrative income for lawyers and that it would be a nightmare for editors. There is no evidence that the IPA would resolve any of the difficulties. That is why I return to new clause 1 which, I believe, would serve the public far better. The hon. Member for Linlithgow also asked whether we are going down the road of state-appointed press policemen. That is an important point.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It may be important, but I am not sure that it is relevant to this new clause.

Lady Olga Maitland

I am referring to the fact that the IPA is a substitute for what I call the guidance in new clause 1. It is suggested that the IPA could deal with propaganda, but there is no evidence that it could deal with propaganda any more effectively than new clause 1.

On accuracy, will politicians be able to use the IPA to beat each other? They would be quite capable of seeking phoney corrections if the opportunities presented themselves. How would the IPA deal with a psychopath such as Saddam Hussein, or one of the Serb warlords who, hand on heart, claim that they have been misinterpreted? There is no evidence that the IPA would do anything other than try to muzzle on the one hand and to make instant adjudications and decisions on the other, which would not improve the standards of the press. I do not believe that the IPA is any closer to searching for the real truth.

Taken to the extreme, the IPA could become a nightmare body for vexatious or trivial complaints. I know that the hon. Member for Hammersmith is trying to address that in the Bill, but the reality is that human nature will leap on the bandwagon and turn the IPA into a nightmare of no benefit to the public—a bottomless pit of investigation, setting one party against another.

One man's accuracy is another man's opinion. I agree that sloppy reporting must be tackled, but we must be careful. In any case, sloppy reporting could be dealt with under the guidelines proposed by new clause 1. It does not need the kind of authority that has been suggested.

Mr. Corbett

The hon. Lady said that accuracy is virtually impossible to define. Why did the journalists and distinguished former journalists who make up the bulk of the membership of the Press Complaints Commission go to so much trouble to include that obligation of accuracy at the start of the code of practice?

Lady Olga Maitland

Because it is extremely important. I do not see what is so surprising about that. One difficulty that new clause 1 has to face is interpretation. I am worried that the IPA could reach an instant decision, against which there is no appeal by any newspaper editor, who is then forced to publish an apology. That would lead to muzzling and gagging, which is unworthy of the great traditions of the country. Outside bodies of the nature that is proposed are unnecessary when a perfectly satisfactory framework already exists. The Press Complaints Commission may sometimes be criticised for being a rather toothless lion, but that toothless lion is well aware of the criticism. It should be beefed up. Legislation and more ideas will be proposed to achieve that.

s But there is already a framework and sometimes such over-reaction does not serve us well. The IPA tries to please all and in the end pleases nobody at all. High standards, ethics and professionalism are important, but the mechanics are already present in new clause 1 satisfactorily to serve the public without the draconian elements that are being proposed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith.

Mr. Key

I am grateful for a few minutes in which to try to persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) to withdraw his new clause 1. It requires that newspapers should make available to the public copies of any editorial or journalistic guidance issued to its staff. New clause 1 would be acceptable only if it were amended to make it clear that editorial or journalistic guidance was limited to guidance on the observing of ethical and professional standards by journalists. It is not at all clear —to me, at least—what editorial or journalistic guidance means.

Our approach to press regulation takes as its starting point public concern over the years about irresponsible behaviour by the press and the efforts that the press has made to regulate itself. We considered whether those efforts have been successful. Our response has generally been to accept the conclusions of the 1990 privacy committee and of the 1993 review of press self-regulation by Sir David Calcutt that the Press Council and its successor body, the Press Complaints Commission, have not been effective regulators of the press. They have not been effective, especially in the critical matter of protecting people from unwarranted intrusion into their privacy.

We are also considering carefully the wide-ranging recommendations of the Select Committee on National Heritage in its report on privacy and media intrusion, a valuable although complex contribution. The recommendations include, of course, proposals for a statutory press ombudsman and a protection of privacy Bill as well as a range of other proposals on matters beyond the responsibilities of my Department.

2.15 pm

No doubt the newspaper industry will be paying careful attention to the many recommendations for improved self-regulation which the Committee made to it. We shall make our response to the Select Committee in the usual way. We hope at the same time to announce our final views on Sir David Calcutt's recommendation for a tribunal as well as to report progress on the Calcutt recommendations for protection of privacy, which we have already accepted.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I have a suspicion that the Minister's speech is not likely to be one of the longer ones, so I should like to ask a question. He says that things are not right, but does he agree that they are less bad than they were, or does he believe that there is as much offensive misbehaviour and misreporting by the press as there was, say, four or five years ago?

Mr. Key

I take the long view. Rather than looking back only three or four years, I take as my starting point the 17th century, and I shall explain why in a moment. It is true that anyone in political or public life cannot begin to correct all the inaccuracies affecting our everyday working life. If we did, we should spend all our working life writing letters to editors rather than getting on with the job. I think that my hon. Friend and I both accept that. I suspect that there has been a cooling of the temperature in the past month or two, no doubt as the press realises that it is under the microscope.

As I said, we shall make our responses known. We have made known our objections to the Bill from the outset and have made it clear that we do not wish it to progress without radical amendment. The Bill would introduce statutory control of newspaper content for the first time in peace time since the 17th century. It cannot be passed without the most detailed consideration of the intended and unintended effects of its various provisions.

Mr. Soley

I must correct the Minister because what he says is not so. Many laws already restrict the content of newspapers: there are court restrictions on reporting and restrictions on local authority matters. Indeed, in some cases, permissive measures control on a statutory basis what the press can do. There are many such examples dating from about the 1880s.

Mr. Key

Having read carefully the history of press freedom in this country, I stand by my statement that there has not been an attempt such as this in many hundreds of years so it is essential that we probe the matter carefully.

Some of the amendments go some way to curing the defects in the Bill but, even if all the amendments were adopted, it would still be very different from anything that the Government would wish to put before the House. I hope that the House will not proceed with the Bill, but will instead give the Government time to make and implement proposals that we consider necessary to ensure the proper balance between press freedom and the rights of the individual.

The new clause would be acceptable only if it were amended to make it very clear that editorial or journalistic guidance was limited to guidance on the observing of professional and ethical standards by journalists. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) is convinced that he should withdraw the new clause.

Mr. Corbett

There is no need for the new clause moved by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley). As members of the National Union of Journalists, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and I are, by virtue of our membership, bound by that union's code of ethics. In the absence of anything else on a professional basis, as practitioners of the black art of journalism from time to time we have a duty laid on us through that membership to keep to the code of ethics, irrespective of what view an editor or a proprietor takes towards it.

We have the Press Complaints Commission. As the Minister has just made clear, it is a fairly friendless little animal. No one, including members of the commission, believes that it has done an effective job. After that, we begin to get into the area of disagreements. None the less, the commission is there. It has a code which it drew up after reviewing the practices put in place by the Press Council which it followed. I find it impossible to think of circumstances in which a newspaper—or its staff—needs to do any more than to subscribe to the terms of the code. I have quarrels with some of the language of the code, but that is not the point. It is there and it obliges proprietors, editors and journalists to adhere to its terms. The new clause is redundant.

The Minister said that the Bill was about control over the content of newspapers. The Bill proposes nothing of the sort. There is a whole raft of legal and other constraints on what newspapers may print. It is worse than that. I know that some of my hon. Friends have taken a great deal of interest in a little body called the D-notice committee. That committee is worse than censorship because it is self-censorship. It is editors volunteering to gag themselves. When some retired admiral up the road gets wind of the fact that a newspaper has got hold of a particular story, he phones up the editor and says, "Look here, old boy, if you run that, we shall clap you in irons. Come and have a gin and tonic." Even now, there is a review of the way in which the D-notice committee works. Part of the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley)—I am wholly with him on this —is that if we are looking to the current breed of newspaper owners and editors properly to safeguard press freedom, we are wasting our time.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

I attended the Second Reading debate and I have read carefully through the report of the Committee stage, although this is my first opportunity to speak on the Bill. I agree that the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) has identified matters that are of great public concern at present. If this debate has achieved anything, it has given Ministers a chance to hear the views of hon. Members. However, that is the only respect in which I welcome the Bill. I voted against it on Second Reading and I continue to oppose it.

My disagreement stems from almost the first word of the title. The Bill is supposed to promote press freedom, yet it is opposed by almost every newspaper in the country, and by organisations including the Guild of British Newspaper Editors, the Newspaper Society and the Newspaper Publishers Association. All my local editors and their journalists have been on to me to say that they are bitterly opposed to the Bill. The Bill is closer to the title "Press Control Bill" proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley).

I accept that there are many occasions on which the press has behaved very badly. The hon. Member for Hammersmith has identified cases in Committee and today in which I would not seek to defend the behaviour of the press. I go further and accept that the press requires regulation. For extreme cases, the libel laws exist, but that is not sufficient. There will be cases in which people cannot afford to take legal action and they need a body to which they can go to make their complaint.

Mr. Soley

The hon. Gentleman is getting confused. The libel laws restrict press freedom. That is why Maxwell could not be investigated. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] It is one of the major reasons. Maxwell used the libel laws to try to prevent investigative journalism and, to some considerable extent—one can argue to what extent—he was successful. I am saying that the libel laws need to be restricted, not expanded. We need to ensure that people can get things corrected without the threat of large libel settlements against the press—a threat which does not encourage press freedom.

Mr. Whittingdale

I agree with the hon. Gentleman to some extent, although I do not want to become involved in a great discussion about the libel laws—

Madam Deputy Speaker

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not, because we are debating new clause 1, not the whole Bill.

Mr. Whittingdale

I accept your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker.

New clause 1—and most of the Bill—is about accuracy. The libel laws prevent people from printing things that are not true. I accept that there needs to be another body. But I differ with the hon. Member for Hammersmith over the nature of that body. I will never support a body that is appointed by the Government to control what the press can print. I know that the hon. Gentleman made some amendments in Committee and that that body would not now be directly appointed. Nevertheless, if the body that appointed the members of the independent press authority were appointed by a member of the Cabinet, as proposed in the Bill, the authority would still be, in essence, a Government-appointed body.

I support the new clause because it would marginally improve the Bill, which I continue to believe is a very bad Bill. It seems to me to be only common sense that editors should make widely available the code of conduct and guidelines that they give their journalists to follow in practising their skills. I welcome the fact that some newspapers have already incorporated the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct into their journalists' contracts.

I should like newspapers to go further still. When I was a parliamentary candidate, I had a piece written about me in one of my local newspapers. I was pleasantly surprised to receive from that newspaper, about 10 days later, a questionnaire asking me whether I was satisfied with the article, whether I felt that it had covered all of the points fully, whether it contained any inaccurate statements and whether the headline sufficiently covered the gist of the story. [HON. MEMBERS: "What was the paper?"] It was the Colchester Evening Gazette, produced by Essex County Newspapers, to which I pay tribute for following that practice. I asked the editor whether it was his usual practice and he said yes—that the questionnaire was sent to anyone about whom his journalists wrote.

That is exactly the kind of approach that we should be encouraging. It is self-regulation at its best. I understand that other local newspapers in my area do exactly the same. I hope that more newspapers will follow that example because I am convinced that self-regulation is the way to proceed.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith has commented that the Press Complaints Commission has few friends. I have my own criticism of the Press Complaints Commission. I note the hon. Gentleman's comments about the 12-year-old child whose family was not able to complain to the commission. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has identified an area in which the commission needs to look again at people's ability to complain to it. I do not, for instance, believe that it is necessarily right that third parties should be prevented from complaining to the commission, and I hope that the commission will consider ways in which it can tighten up the arrangements. I repeat that I cannot accept that a statutory body appointed by the Government is the right way to proceed.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, South and Maldon (Mr. Whittingdale), I attended the Second Reading debate but was not called —perhaps because the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) spoke for so long. I have a couple of minutes now in which to add my objections to those voiced about the Bill.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. That is not the purpose of this debate.

Mr. Soley

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Peter Atkinson

I thought that I might be hauled up for saying that, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Of course I am talking about new clause 1. Given the chance, I would oppose the new clause not because I do not think it is sensible and an acceptable contribution to helping newspapers on the course of self regulation, but because I believe that it is unnecessary and bureaucratic.

Newspapers should be responsible for their own accuracy and self regulation should continue. I was interested in the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland). She referred to the sign that used to hang in the newsroom of the Daily Express and the Sunday Express where I also worked for some time. One big sign read, "make it fast" and the sign below read, "make it accurate." Some wag removed the first "c" of "accurate" to make it read, "a curate". Hon. Members will recall that The Sunday Express had a great penchant for the lives of clergymen.

It being half-past Two o'clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

Bill, as amended (in the Standing Committee), to he further considered upon Friday 2 July.