HC Deb 20 February 1996 vol 272 cc189-92 4.19 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make it an offence, subject to a public interest defence, for any newspaper or other media outlet to obtain or seek to obtain, by means of any financial or other inducement, information from a third party concerning the private affairs of an individual; to prohibit the making by newspapers and other media of payments, whether on a contingent basis or otherwise, to any actual or prospective witness in any court proceedings in return for information relating to those proceedings; and for connected purposes. My Bill targets two aspects of cheque-book journalism that I believe to be obnoxious and altogether inconsistent with the principles which should underlie a free society.

The first of those activities is the practice of paying informers for information that relates to the personal and private lives of other people. The House will be familiar with the practice of which I speak. The victims, the targets of such journalism, are sometimes people who are already prominent in the public eye—members of the royal family, football stars, television stars, politicians—or sometimes people who are merely related in some way to people in those categories. Sometimes the victims are ordinary citizens. Recently, they have included headmasters, vicars and, in a case in my constituency, a land agent—a man who was not by any stretch of the imagination a public figure; nor had he ever had any aspiration to be so.

It is fair to say that the section of the tabloids which indulges in such journalism has moved steadily further down this particularly unattractive road, advancing at first hesitantly, perhaps a little shamefacedly, but in the absence of any constraint and in the presence of the commercial pressures of competition, such activity has gone further and further until the point has been reached—indeed, it has been exceeded—when Parliament should consider whether it is right to bring a legislative halt to it.

I emphasise that my Bill is not a privacy Bill. The House has had opportunities in the past to consider the merits of a privacy Bill, and I trust that we shall have an opportunity to do so in the future. My Bill would not make it illegal to reveal private or personal information without the consent of the subject: it would simply make it illegal to pay third parties for such information.

There are three reasons why it is important to move in that direction. First, the substantial amounts that can be made from some tabloids for such stories are, of course, an inducement to unscrupulous people to create the circumstances in which they can make those large sums of money. It is, perhaps, a little sinister that the informants or informers who have benefited from these large payments have sometimes included prostitutes and pimps. One sees all too easily where the trend in that sector of journalism may lead unless some constraint is applied.

Secondly, the practice of corrupting the friends, acquaintances, employers, employees or former employees, disgruntled former lovers or spouses of individuals to procure private information is generally associated with the practices of secret police in a totalitarian society. It is unacceptable that practices from which the populations of eastern Europe have now been emancipated after the end of the nightmare of communism should continue quite respectably to be applied in Great Britain by certain people in what used to be called Fleet street.

The practices to which I refer have replaced the ancient crime of blackmail. Our Victorian predecessors in the House rightly decided that blackmail was a heinous offence, and created stringent penalties; nowadays, however, no one but a lunatic would, if in possession of private information that might embarrass someone, think of risking criminal charges by engaging in blackmail. The rewards involved in taking the information to a Fleet street tabloid would be much greater, and the risks non-existent.

The second part of my Bill targets the different but equally obnoxious journalistic practice of paying, or reaching agreements to pay, witnesses in legal proceedings, perhaps on a contingent basis. A bad example came to light recently in the West case. This corrupts the whole system of justice, because it is essential to the good conduct of justice that witnesses are genuinely objective. No witness can be considered objective if he or she stands to make a small fortune—or perhaps a large fortune—depending on the verdict in the case. That practice, too, should be rapidly stopped.

I hope that the House will give my Bill a Second Reading, and will feel that the points that I have raised deserve detailed examination in both Houses, and I hope that, before too long, appropriate counterweights to unacceptable journalistic practices will be on the statute book.

4.26 pm
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I oppose the Bill: not so much the second part, which concerns the payment of witnesses in judicial proceedings—that is probably a matter for judges and the courts, rather than one that merits a new law—but certainly the first part.

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) ranged far and wide, but if I understood his argument correctly—I had not heard it advanced before—he was saying that it was all right to denigrate, blackmail or put someone down if the information is given free of charge, but not if money, lunch or some other journalistic inducement is offered.

We all know Humbert Wolfe's famous rhyme: You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there's no occasion to. I note that the Bill attacks journalistic corrupt practices. Perhaps it should have been entitled "Proprietors' Corrupt Practices", "Editors' Corrupt Practices" or, indeed, "Politicians' Corrupt Practices". I note that the distinguished chairman of a midlands newspaper group, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) has just entered the Chamber; I am sure that he would wish to take the rap for any activity that his journalists might get up to.

At the end—or, rather, the beginning—of the day, the proprietor is responsible. Journalists are hired hands: the proprietor—or, perhaps, the editor who ranks directly below him—must stand in the firing line. I do not think that we need new laws to attack journalism. If anything, we need new laws to strengthen it. As Wordsworth put it, Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour"— in this instance, to report on the fen of stagnant waters that is the government of our country at present.

I must declare a small interest, as a former president of the National Union of Journalists. The NUJ has a code of conduct which precisely covers the point made by the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding. Clause 5 of the NUJ code of conduct states: A journalist shall obtain information, photographs and illustrations only by straightforward means. The use of other means can be justified only by over-riding considerations of the public interest. The journalist is entitled to exercise a personal conscientious objection to the use of such means. However, had the hon. Gentleman suggested writing that into law, I would have opposed it because it is not the law's business to say what journalistic practice should be.

It would be better if that code of conduct were on every newsroom wall and part of the training of every journalist, and if all the journalists' and editors' organisations—not just the NUJ—were strengthened in our newsrooms instead of weakened. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Ashby), who knows not a little of this problem, will be aware that the newspaper which traduced him has destroyed the NUJ, ripped up the code of conduct and denied its journalists the right to uphold that code. In past years he has voted continuously for measures to destroy the rights of journalists and their union to enforce that code.

The law that we need is not so much one to attack journalists and to protect private lives as one to extend the public sphere of information. One reason why there is such obsessive interest in private affairs is that debate and news about the public sphere in this country is constrained by the culture of secrecy and news manipulation. That was shown recently with the publication of the Scott report, where the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts), a junior Minister in the Deputy Prime Minister's Department for Conservative propaganda, was given advance sight of the report well before other hon. Members—in flagrant violation of the Prime Minister's assurance that only senior Ministers would see it—in order to prepare a media spin defence.

The Bill refers incessantly to money. When we have a Government who know the price of everything, but the value of nothing, because their only sense of public duty is to manage the media, we cannot fail to understand why some journalists scurry after private tittle-tattle. The public sphere of information is so limited that journalists turn to private gossip.

I hope that, after his Bill is given due consideration, the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding will support a freedom of information Act proposed by Labour Members. Before that, I shall give him and his supporters the opportunity to offer support on Friday week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) will introduce a private Member's Bill on whistleblowers which will give members of the public working for organisations the right to extend the public sphere of information. If the hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding and his supporters are serious about his Bill, I hope to see them in the Division Lobby on Friday week, supporting my hon. Friend's important Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Quentin Davies, Mr. Julian Brazier, Mr. Alex Carlile, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Nigel Forman, Sir Archie Hamilton, Mr. Andrew Hargreaves, Mr. David Hunt, Sir Jim Lester, Mr. Giles Radice, Mr. Richard Shepherd and Mr. Clive Soley.