HC Deb 10 May 1996 vol 277 cc605-9

Order for Second Reading read.

2.15 pm
Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

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

I was delighted, when I introduced my Bill under the ten-minute rule a few weeks ago, that the House agreed to allow it to proceed to a Second Reading. I am very pleased to take it to a further stage.

My Bill is not a privacy Bill, although I disguise from no one the fact that, since I was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1987, I have been sympathetic to measures taken by hon. Members on both sides of the House to introduce a privacy Bill. An inherent part of the concept of a free society is that people should be able to enjoy an element of genuine privacy in their private lives and that there should be a sphere that is protected from unwanted intrusion from the media and from outsiders.

My Bill has two purposes. The first is to make it an offence for media representatives to purchase private information relating to third parties—to corrupt acquaintances, friends, employers, employees, tenants or other potential informants—when there is no public interest, as defined in the Bill, and to publish that information.

My Bill's second purpose, which is of course linked to its first, relates to a corrupt and undesirable practice. My Bill would make it a criminal offence to reach financial arrangements with witnesses or potential witnesses in criminal trials. It would be an aggravated offence to reach financial arrangements with witnesses in criminal trials when those arrangements were contingent on a guilty verdict being returned.

There is surely no way in which a witness can be genuinely objective in the witness box—therefore, justice cannot be done—if that witness knows that the consequence of his evidence or the evidence given by other witnesses, who may also have been corrupted, might be a guilty verdict, so he stands to make a substantial amount of money. We know that the amount of money that has passed in some cases—such as the West case, in which this phenomenon has arisen—has been in substantial multiples of tens of thousands of pounds.

In those circumstances, it is not possible for a witness to put out of his mind the enormous financial consequences of the verdict that will be returned. Therefore, the witness cannot possibly be genuinely objective in his or her evidence.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I realise that time is short, but the Chamber is nearly empty. Is my hon. Friend aware of the concern—certainly among my constituents and, I suspect, among the public as a whole—about the lowering of standards in the tabloid newspapers in recent years? Does he realise how much anger and potential support there is for his proposals?

Mr. Davies

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his expression of support. I received scores of letters from the public at large, not only from my constituents, when I introduced the Bill. I do not recall receiving any letters opposing my initiative, although I did have one or two slightly angry conversations with editors of tabloid newspapers. One of them took place at a private reception and it would be invidious to mention the editor's name, although he is a well-known figure. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his testimony to the support that my initiative has—for good reason, I believe—encountered.

As my hon. Friend points out, a debate on the boundary between liberty and licence in a free society has been opened by the tabloid press in the past few years. I have not always lived in a free society, as I lived in Moscow for three years as second secretary at the British embassy there. That was 20 years ago, at the height of the Brezhnev regime. It was anything but a free society, but I had the good luck to have diplomatic immunity and was spared some of the more obvious threats that the ordinary Soviet man or woman would have faced had he or she displayed any political independence or freedom of thought.

Nevertheless, even as a British diplomat, for three years I got used to knowing that I would be followed everywhere I went, in a car if I was in a car or by several people if I was on foot. Indeed, if I was on foot, I would be followed by several people. I was followed to every restaurant table at which I might sit, and I knew that every hotel room and every flat that I visited would be bugged. It became second nature, but I took it for granted that, when I came back to this country, I would no longer be subject to such a regime.

I was recently reminded, forcibly and uncomfortably, of my days in the Soviet Union, as it then was, when I read in the tabloids about one of our colleagues who was apparently followed by employees of the Daily Mirror. He was followed from the House to his home, from his home to an airport, from the airport to a hotel and from the hotel to the beach. Photographs were surreptitiously taken of him, of the bedroom in which he stayed and of the person with him, who was in no sense a public figure and certainly did not deserve to have her name or face dragged into the story, but there is no protection against that.

I understand that the Government are favourably considering legislating against stalking. We believe that stalking is a way of one individual harassing another in a manner that is inconsistent with the dignity, freedom and independence that all individuals should enjoy in a free society. However, no one so far seems to have thought it at all unreasonable that individuals should be harassed by the tabloid press.

At issue is not only the harassment itself, but—this is the point of the Bill—the methods used to obtain information for sensational articles. Those methods extend beyond surveillance—there have been cases of individuals, including Members of Parliament, having their telephone bugged, of documents being purloined and of people being corrupted. There have been extremely unpleasant instances of people making enormous sums of money by selling stories to the tabloids, about how they allegedly slept with so and so, or by providing other sensational information about someone's medical, sexual or emotional history.

That is not only degrading, but poses exactly the same threat to the liberty of the subject as the activities of the secret police, activities that we supposed were associated with totalitarian societies.

The habit of corruption is dangerous, not only because it is unacceptable when the objective is to find out personal information with a view to making money by its publication, but because it is only a small step—a step that will become almost imperceptible when one is offering to corrupt people on the scale that the tabloid press regularly does—to inventing the information. A colleague in the House—this has undoubtedly happened also to many private citizens—was inveigled into a situation that otherwise would not have arisen, as a result of somebody who was receiving a large amount of money from the tabloid press.

I have a copy of the latest report of the Press Complaints Commission, from the first quarter of this year. It deals with the complaint of Miss Selina Scott against the News of the World. It is clear that that newspaper was prepared to pay someone to allege that he had had a sexual relationship with Miss Scott, when there was clearly no truth in the allegation. The man concerned was a weird misfit who had a passing acquaintance with Miss Scott, who had been nice enough, unfortunately, to write to congratulate him on his engagement. On the basis of that letter and no other evidence, the man was able to make a large amount of money by selling an entirely untrue and spurious story.

Such allegations are now the daily stuff which certain sections of Fleet street, or should I say Wapping, live off. We should not allow the situation to continue. There must be a proper balance between the liberty of the subject and the freedom of expression of the press, a freedom that we all want the fourth estate to continue to enjoy.

If the balance is not struck naturally as a result of sensible and responsible behaviour by all citizens—including those who run the tabloid press—and if those who run the tabloid press feel that there is no countervailing pressure on them to decide against the commercial inducement to produce ever-more sensational stories to increase their readership and market share, it must be for the House to establish where the proper balance should lie. The House must establish clear rules of the game, and it is more than time that we considered doing exactly that.

2.26 pm
The Minister of State, Department of National Heritage (Mr. Iain Sproat)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies) on raising this subject. My congratulations are tempered only by the thought that we simply do not have enough time on this occasion to air the subject to the extent that it deserves, and I very much hope that my hon. Friend—and perhaps the Government—will find another opportunity to look at the matter. It is undoubtedly true that, if democracy is to flourish, there must be a balance between the rights of individuals to go about their lawful procedures and the right of the press to hound them to try to find out not only what they have done, but—as my hon. Friend mentioned in the dreadful case of Selina Scott—what they have not done.

With regard to the Selina Scott case, my hon. Friend did not mention something that struck me most forcibly. Not only was a false story printed against her, and not only was no proper checking done to ensure that the story was accurate, but when her complaint was upheld—as I understand it—she was told that, as she had not lost any money as a result of the story, nothing further could be done. It is as if Shakespeare had never written: Who steals my purse, steals trash. That was many hundreds of years ago, yet it still applies today.

An individual was defamed, although the allegations could have been looked at thoroughly. The man's character could have been shown by the fact that the letter purporting to be a love letter from Selina Scott was actually congratulating him on his engagement. One gasps that anyone should do such things and that there should be no remedy. My hon. Friend is right to say that we should examine such matters seriously. Such practices corrupt and degrade democracy and degrade individuals. It gives the press too much power if journalists believe that they can indulge in such practices and get away with it.

I hope that my hon. Friend will return to the subject and that we have a proper opportunity to debate the rights and wrongs of it. The press should be protected in doing what it ought to do, but it should not be allowed to get away with stories such as the ones about Selina Scott or about my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Allason), who has been subject in successive days to front-page attacks by the Daily Mirror, which followed him about in exactly the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding said that the secret police did to him when he was in Moscow.

It is no defence to say that because it was done not for the secret police, but for a newspaper, such subterfuge, deceit and following of individuals can be justified.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday 12 July.