HC Deb 16 March 1998 vol 308 cc937-8
6. Mr. Corbett

What proposals he has to safeguard and extend editorial independence in the media. [32902]

Mr. Chris Smith

Responsibility for what is broadcast on the audiovisual media is for the broadcasters and broadcasting regulators, which are independent of Government and accountable for safeguarding the public interest in broadcasting.

Editorial independence of the press is a matter between proprietors and editors. Any direct interference by Government in their relationship would, of course, be inappropriate in a democracy.

Mr. Corbett

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that interference by newspaper owners and book publishers makes a mockery of editorial independence? Does he accept that what may please people in Beijing is likely to displease the rest of us? Will my right hon. Friend ask the Press Complaints Commission to look into recent cases of interference in editorial independence which threaten press freedom, with a view to encouraging newspaper owners to sign up to a code of conduct in respect of that important aspect of the business?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend is right to make a robust defence of strong editorial independence. I suspect that his question may have touched on The Times newspaper. He will be aware that, when the previous Government took decisions in relation to the ownership of The Times, one clear provision was as follows: the editor of each newspaper shall retain control over any political comment published in his newspaper and, in particular, shall not be subject to any restraint or inhibition in expressing opinion or in reporting news that might directly or indirectly conflict with the opinions or interests of any of the newspaper proprietors."—[Official Report, 27 January 1981; Vol. 997, c. 790.] That provision remains firmly in place and if my hon. Friend has any evidence that it has been breached, he should draw it to the attention of the independent directors of Times Newspapers, who were appointed for precisely that purpose.

Mr. Hawkins

In the light of the assurance that was given to the previous Government, and bearing in mind what happened recently at HarperCollins, does the Secretary of State accept that it is his job, on behalf of the current Government, to investigate whether that assurance has been adhered to?

Mr. Smith

It is in fact the job of the independent directors of The Times to do precisely that. It is the purpose for which they were appointed. There are five of them and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman knows more about them than I do.

Mr. Winnick

Should not my right hon. Friend be willing to learn certain lessons from what happened in respect of Mr. Patten's book as a result of the direct intervention of Mr. Murdoch? Is he altogether satisfied that the selling of The Times at a totally non-commercial price on certain days of the week is not undermining other newspapers not controlled by press tycoons?

Mr. Smith

My hon. Friend will be aware that matters relating to loss-leading sales of any item are matters of competition policy that are being addressed by the Competition Bill that is currently before another place. In relation to the discussion concerning HarperCollins and the book by the former Governor of Hong Kong, the net result of the entire exercise will probably enlarge Macmillan's publishing profits.

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