§ 2.47 p.m.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS rose to call attention to the Report of the Royal Commission on the Press; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. May I say at the beginning how sorry I am that the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross, who was the Chairman of the Royal Commission on the Press, and who had hoped to be present to-day to hear your Lordships' views on his work, has written to inform me that his doctors will not, unfortunately, allow him to be present. May I also say that, for different reasons, I find it personally regrettable that none of the noble Lords who have controlling interests in some of the great newspapers of this country have seen fit to participate in a debate which is considering grave matters affecting the Press. Although I am delighted that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, is to speak, I think that even he will agree that he cannot perhaps be regarded as one of the main bulwarks and foundation stones of the Press, but rather perhaps as a slightly flighty column of it.
THE EARL OF ARRAN
My Lords, I am not interested in the noble Lord's jolly jokes, but I wish to say that one noble Lord controlling a Press group has leave of absence from this House, and is also not well.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, there are other noble Lords who could well have attended. I am perfectly prepared to agree, for example, that the noble Lord, Lord Beaverbrook, who has just had his 84th birthday, can well be excused, though if he had participated in our debate I feel sure he would have added immensely to the gusto, the merriment and the vigour of it.
The Press might be said, for various reasons, to be in somewhat bad odour at the present time. This is not, of course, the first time in its history that this has happened. Indeed, it is reported that Sir Walter Scott, when consulted by a young friend of his as to whether he should seek employment on a newspaper, replied, "Young man, I would prefer to sell gin to the poor and poison 864 them in that way rather than work on a newspaper." One may hope that both gin and journalism have gone up in the world a little since then. But I daresay that there are many of your Lordships, particularly on the Benches opposite, who, in the course of recent events, may have found themselves agreeing with that very shrewd and pertinent lady, Queen Victoria, who once remarked to Lord Palmerston, when she heard that the then editor of The Times, Mr. Delane, was frequently to be seen riding in the Row with a Duke on either side, that she saw no reason why journalists should be accepted in Society. She thought that the disclosure of confidential information would lessen if they were not, and she said that she could see no difficulty in this, since, she said, "Surely no gentleman would wish to consort with journalists unless required to do so in the course of his duty".
Although the Press has on many occasions been somewhat in disfavour—as, indeed, it is often right that it should be; for certainly it is no part of the business of the Press to seek popularity with Governments, any more than it is of Governments to seek popularity with the Press; although some do—what we are facing at this present time is a crisis in the affairs of the Press, both, if I may say so, in its relationships as an industry and also, and I think even more, in its relationship to the public. And this was well expressed in the terms of reference to the Royal Commission which were—and I quote:…To examine the economic and financial factors affecting the production and sale of newspapers, magazines…and particularlyto consider whether these factors tend to diminish diversity of ownership and control or the number and variety of such publications, having regard to the importance, in the public interest, of the accurate presentation of news and the free expression of opinion;In putting down this Motion for debate I am concerned particularly with that aspect of matters; with how far the economic and industrial factors in the Press, and how far other pressures which have developed in the Press, affect its abilities in reporting facts accurately and reasonably objectively and in giving a proper variety of opinion.
865 My Lords, consider the background to the appointment of the Royal Commission. It came into existence because public opinion had been deeply disturbed by the death of a number of newspapers, culminating in the death of the News Chronicle and the Star, both old and highly respected newspapers with what, in earlier times, would have been a massive circulation assuring them not only of a solid body of public support but of a profitably economic existence. Public opinion, deeply disturbed by the death of these newspapers, was again disturbed by a take-over bid which resulted in the Daily Mirror-Sunday Pictorial group taking over the whole of the Odham's Press group, including the Daily Herald and the People and a great empire of periodicals, which has made Mr. Cecil King, the man at the head of the Mirror-Pictorial group, the man. I suppose, most listened to by women in the whole of history, since he controls almost the entire consortium of women's periodicals which are read with such avidity week by week.
It is, I think worthwhile just to look back to the 1949 Royal Commission, of which my noble friend Lady Wootton of Abinger was a most distinguished member, and which made a number of proposals that are only now beginning to be accepted by the Press. But although it made a number of highly sensible proposals, that Commission—oddly, for a Commission of which my noble friend was a member—very seriously mis-judged the economic future of the Press. It judged in its Report that although there had been—and I quote:between 1921 and 1948 a marked tendency away from the previous concentration of ownership in the national Press",it sawno reason to expect a reversal of this tendency and a fresh bout of concentration".Unfortunately, this belief proved tragically wrong. In fact, as the Royal Commission on the Press of 1962 reported, on page 15, paragraph 18:Taking all dailies together, it is clear that the extent of concentration has been substantially increased slice the report of the 1949 Commission. The three leading undertakings controlled 67 per cent. of the total circulation in 1961 against 45 per cent. in 1948.In fact, we have now reached a position in which nearly seven out of ten of all the daily newspapers read each day by the people of this country are controlled 866 by one of three people: Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere, or Mr. Cecil King, a Canadian and two nephews of Lord Northcliffe.
In the Sunday paper field the concentration is even greater. There, more than eight out of every ten of all the Sunday newspapers, which are read with such enormous appetite on Sunday morning by the people of this country, are controlled by one of three people: Lord Beaverbrook, Mr. Cecil King or Mr. William Carr, the Chairman of the News of the World. Coming up strongly, of course, there is Mr. Roy Thomson, who controls the Sunday Times as part of a vast international empire of the Press, comprising altogether some 100 newspapers in, I think, twelve different countries on both sides of the Atlantic and in Africa—the manifestation of a new phenomenon in publishing such as the world has never seen before. I think there is this to be said for Mr. Roy Thomson and this strange new development of which he is a sort of forefront. At least, as he himself has said, there are many people who think that they can edit one or perhaps two newspapers, but nobody but a fool would think that he could edit 100 at the same time. Therefore, I think it is the case that the developments of Mr. Roy Thomson—and it perhaps ought, in fairness, to be said—have brought more editorial freedom to the editors of the papers he controls, if only because it is beyond the human capacity of any one man controlling 100 papers to act in such close telepathetic communication with them as Lord Beaverbrook does with the editors of his two papers, the Daily Express and Sunday Express, who always seem to know what he is thinking, in whatever part of the world he may be, and what he would wish them to think.
In 1949 the Royal Commission of that day commented on the closure of newspapers in the previous two decades, and said that any decrease in the number could not be contemplated without anxiety. But in fact the Shawcross Commission had to report (page 9, paragraph 2) that since 1949, when that statement was made, a further 17 daily and Sunday newspapers had ceased publication in London and the provinces. The people of this country read more newspapers per thousand of the population than the 867 people of any other country in the world. Until comparatively recently the rise in circulation was of a quite phenomenal character. Although the increase in population might have led to a certain expectation of increase in circulation, in fact the actual number of newspapers read went up by nearly three times. If one pays attention to those symbols and tools of our time—what are called "I.Q.s"—one will find that practically everybody in this country who is capable of reading at all reads one or more papers. And sometimes, looking at the papers one suspects that even those who cannot read also buy them—indeed, some of them are produced for that particular purpose.
My Lords, we read more and more of fewer and fewer newspapers. Yet the whole basis on which the long struggle for the freedom of the Press took place, was the premise that what was desirable and essential for the health of a society was that all significant views should be able to find their expression; that there should exist a Press which would be able to report the interests of all kinds and express the desires and ambitions of all groups. The freedom of the Press was won by people of all kinds, many of whom suffered greatly for it. It was won as part of the whole democratic heritage of our society; not as something which was, or was to be, the possession of newspaper proprietors or newspaper editors in order to enable them to make substantial profits, but because a free Press is an essential instrument of a democratic way of life.
What we have seen happening more and more consistently over recent years—and the process has speeded up enormously, even in the interval between the two Royal Commissions—has been the closure of newspapers which in fact represented very substantial bodies of opinion. So that we are now reaching a kind of polarisation of the Press in which, at one end of the scale, we find newspapers, often of great distinction, that serve comparatively small publics, but publics which are believed by advertisers to have a high income and therefore come in what is called the A-B group when the purchasing capacity of people is broken down. At one end of the scale we have these small papers serving groups of fairly high income. 868 At the other end of the scale are the great mass circulations which now, in order to succeed, probably require a circulation of at least 4 million, which means a readership of well over 12 million. We have a polarisation of the Press with an increasingly great desert in between. The result is that what I might call the great middle groups of the community, who, although they may not have wanted the serious consistent diet of the more serious papers, and wanted something more interesting and more valuable as a guide to public affairs than the pure entertainment paper, find it increasingly difficult to find any newspaper at all that can serve their needs.
I hope that during the course of this debate we shall pay some attention to this aspect, and that we shall hear from the noble and learned Viscount the Leader of the House the Government's views on what, in their opinion, can be done to meet what I think may fairly be described as a situation critical for democracy. In part, as the Royal Commission Report itself shows (though it is not put as a major factor), it can be claimed that this closure of newspapers has been due to high costs, resulting from an uneconomic structure within the industry. I have no doubt that those of your Lordships who are concerned in the management of great businesses and who may, from time to time—particularly those of you who have at any time been associated with nationalised industries—find yourselves pilloried in the Press for the inefficiency of your undertakings, may have derived a certain wry satisfaction from the Report of the Royal Commission, backed up by a survey made by management consultants, that the Press itself is the most inefficient of all industries—indeed, so inefficient that were the same stage of inefficiency to operate in the industrial structure of this country as a whole, the Commission comment that we should be economically bankrupt.
Speaking from this side of the House and as one who has spent much of his life being concerned with the history and the problems of the trade unions, I think that in part (and I believe some of the printing trades union leaders themselves would agree) it has been owing to a body of practices which have been built up over the years and which are no longer tenable, although it also needs to be 869 said that in many cases the managements of the most successful papers have not only supported, but often almost inspired, these restrictive practices in order to make the going harder for their rivals. This structure, which certainly is no credit to anybody, is a fault of both sides of industry equally.
During the last few days I have had discussions with leaders of the printing trades unions, and I am assured by them that although there are now some 16 trade unions on the production side of the newspaper industry, there is good hope that, as a result of discussions now taking place, they will progressively be reduced and will, in the end, be brought down to no more than six trade unions. This will very greatly improve the negotiating structure, and will do away with many of the demarcation difficulties that have existed. I think it needs to be said, and ought to be said, that in this matter the printing trades union leaders, aware of the situation, are themselves taking a most progressive attitude towards the problems that face them. Not that that would surprise me among trade union leaders, where one often, and usually, finds a progressive attitude. The problem often is to get that attitude to permeate down through all levels of industry, whether on the management or the labour side. That is not easy, but it is essential, and I hope that we shall have an assurance from the noble Viscount the Leader of the House that the Government, through the Minister of Labour, are keeping in close contact with the discussions that are now taking place and are standing ready to give every aid that can be given, particularly—because this is most essential—in creating and establishing an acceptable system of redundancy payments that will make possible a run-down in the total labour force of the industry, which is almost certainly required, without too much damage and upheaval.
I hope, too, for an assurance that the Government will also do whatever they can to support what is again a most necessary part of any reform of the labour structure of the newspaper industry; that is, to help to promote and help forward the measures and discussions which are now taking place to promote an industry-wide pensions scheme, so that men who have to leave one newspaper which is in difficulties to go to another will not, as 870 often happens at present, lose their pensions. In many instances those pensions are on a purely grace-and-favour basis of the employers, without any proper backing. That seems to me a situation which is really indefensible at this period in our industrial history.
But, important though the cost structure of labour costs in the newspaper industry may be, the primary factor in the decline in newspapers is, of course, the revenue situation. The situation here, which I think ought to be recognised, is that we in this country have all grown used to accepting our papers at a price which is far too low. We have been brought up to buy a subsidised Press, a Press that is subsidised by advertisement revenue. Of course, in any economic newspaper undertaking advertisement revenue must bear a proportion, and a pretty substantial proportion, of the total revenue. But we have tended to reach a situation where the dependence upon advertising revenue, as compared with the dependence on sales revenue, is so out of proportion that any decline in advertising revenue for a particular newspaper may, as in the case of the News Chronicle and many other newspapers, lead to their untimely death, even though those who attend the funeral as mourners may number several millions who ought to be able to get the kind of paper that they wish.
Although I accept the fact, contrary to some who gave evidence before the Commission, that it would be most difficult and might well be dangerous, for the Government to attempt to intervene in this matter, either by regulating advertisement percentages in newspapers more than at present or by taxing advertisements, I hope that the advertisement industry as a whole will accept the fact, that unless it is prepared to look at what is happening, it may in the end find itself completely in the grasp of a few newspapers, one or two newspapers, which alone have been allowed to survive because advertising has been concentrated in such few papers.
As I said earlier, all these factors have led to a concentration of the ownership of newspapers, and the Royal Commission recommend that because this concentration has now gone so far, measures should be taken, by the setting up of a Press Amalgamations Court, to consider how far any new proposals for amalgamation 871 that would affect a substantial body of circulation—over 3 million copies—are or are not in the public interest. The recommendation that such a Court should be set up has the backing, I think I can say, of almost all the organisations representing those employed in the newspaper industry, whether on the journalistic side or on the production side. Although I think that the employers' organisations may be somewhat shy of it, I know a number of individual employers who are also in favour of it; and I hope very much that when the noble Viscount, the Leader of your Lordships' House, comes to reply for the Government he will be able to give us some assurance that the Government are prepared to take seriously this recommendation of the Royal Commission.
When we have a situation in which, as I said earlier, seven out of ten of all the daily newspapers in this country are controlled by one of three people, it seems to me a matter of the greatest public interest that there should be serious examination and consideration of any proposals which are likely to increase that concentration of newspaper or periodical power by still further adding to the immense newspaper industry.
§ THE EARL OF DROGHEDA
My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me to intervene for one moment? When he refers to this figure of seven out of ten newspapers, is he talking about copies or individual titles?
§ LORD MABANE
My Lords, would the noble Lord tell me whether or not he is referring only to national daily newspapers? His figure is not correct for the whole country, because he is excluding provincial newspapers.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, I am talking about the national daily Press and the Sunday Press—which are, of course, the most widely read and, for good or ill, the most widely assimilated newspapers in the country.
The point which I should like to make, and which I would ask the noble Leader of the House to take very seriously into consideration, is that an economic concentration which may be perfectly viable 872 in terms of many industries, where it is perhaps right and proper that the economic claim for big units should be considered, and may even, sometimes, be paramount, ought not alone to rule when the concentration of newspapers is under consideration. The issues that arise in looking at the newspaper industry cannot be, and ought not to be, regarded simply in industrial or economic terms, but must be regarded also in terms of the public interest as a whole.
So far I have been speaking in the main about the newspaper industry as an industry. I want now to speak very briefly about what is to me, in many ways, the more important aspect of the matter, and that is what I may term the profession inside the industry. Part of the basic problem of the Press—and, indeed, part of the basic problem, as I believe, of our whole modern society—is how to maintain, encourage and enhance professional standards in an increasingly industrialised society. This is particularly so in the case of the Press, where the profession or vocation of journalism operates inside an industry which grows increasingly powerful and increasingly dedicated to commercial ends. It is very necessary not only that the individual journalists shall hold in the highest regard the professional standards that will best serve the public interest—and I cannot pretend for one moment that this is always done—but also that, in so far as society itself can give support to those standards it should do so.
This, of course, is the purpose of what I might perhaps call the second major recommendation of the Royal Commission—which, indeed, repeats a recommendation made by the first Royal Commission, of which my noble friend Lady Wootton of Abinger was a member—that the Press Council should be reconstituted with an independent Chairman and lay members. The Press must always be regarded as a trio in which there are equal (or perhaps not always quite equal; I think the third is even more important than the other two) interests to be regarded: the interests of the owners of newspapers; the interests of those who edit and write the newspapers; and the interests of those who read the newspapers, the general public. And a Press Council which has prestige and authority, and which represents not 873 only the proprietors of newspapers but the editors and writers of newspapers, and the public is, I think, an essential in this present time.
As the noble Viscount the Leader of the House will know, since I am sure that the communication between Press and Government runs both ways, a great deal has already been done in this respect. Indeed, I expect it to be announced shortly after Whitsun, unless the Leader of the House is in a position to announce it to-day, that in fact a reconstituted Press Council is to be established which will have an independent Chairman and lay members. I think that is a very good thing and that a welcome for this change should go forward from this House.
But on this question of the constitution of that Press Council, it is, I think, important that in any consultations the Government may be having with the Press Council and those who form it, and the constituent bodies which make it up, it should be borne in mind that it is important that that Council should be available not only to meet the criticisms of members of the public, but also to sustain and support those within the profession of journalism who feel themselves pressurised by commercial interests, or even by their own colleagues and superiors, to go in for the kind of practices which in some instances brought such disgrace—and I use the word advisedly—on the Press in the Vassall case. It seems to me essential that in the body of the Press it should be possible for an individual journalist—who I think must sometimes he prepared to show more courage in rejecting the wrong orders than he sometimes is—to have a professional body of this kind to which he can turn for support to hold up his arm when he feels it necessary to stand against instructions that are contrary to what he believes to be the ethics of journalism and the interests of the public.
My Lords, I have perhaps spoken for too long, and I ask your forgiveness if from time to time a certain emotion has crept into my voice. But I have been a working journalist, a professional journalist, almost for the whole of my career. I am proud to be one, and believe that it is a profession or trade worthy of great honour. Also, I am proud to say that not only have I myself 874 been a journalist now for a great many years, but my daughter who is a journalist has just recently become engaged to another journalist. So I am perhaps in the hope of starting, if not a dynasty, at any rate a sort of line of journalists. In part my plea before your Lordships' House is that, if such is the case, you will help to do what you can in making a journalism which will be worthy of my grandsons. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.33 p.m.
THE LORD BISHOP OF LONDON
My Lords, it is nearly 200 years since Blackstone delivered his famous dictum:The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a Free State".Present events, or recent events, in other countries, if we exclude consideration of our own, have underlined and emphasised the truth that a free State does require a free Press. It is for this reason, I think, that the public instinct is disturbed when the freedom of the Press here seems to be in any way endangered. We are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, for initiating this debate and for, if I may say so, rightly allowing a note of emotion occasionally to appear in his voice; because it is a matter on which on the professional side it is right that he should feel deeply, and on which many who are not within the profession of journalism sometimes feel deeply also. We are grateful for this opportunity of a debate in your Lordships' House on a matter which is of great public concern.
The Royal Commission of 1962 had as its concern, and indeed in its terms of reference, really only part of this vast subject. That part related to the importance in the public interest of the actual presentation of news, and the free expression of opinion. We are concerned lest the concentration of ownership or control in any way militates against that free expression of opinion. I think that what has emerged from discussions and recent controversies is a very considerable and widespread public ignorance of the way in which the Press works, and indeed of what the Press is. I hope that the Press itself may perhaps make its workings better known to the public as a whole, because there is a good deal of confusion of thought from the failure to understand what the noble Lord himself has made so clear: that when we 875 talk about the Press we are considering both an industry and a profession, and a profession which has to work inside an industry, and which as such is subjected to pressures which no other profession in this country knows.
When we speak of journalists, we are indeed speaking of some 20,000 very different human beings, nearly all of whom are earning their living, or trying to earn their living, in conditions of exceptional difficulty. It is difficult and dangerous to generalise about any particular group of men in any particular profession. But perhaps it is most dangerous of all with journalism, for it is from that danger of generalisation, from a few instances, that the whole profession of journalism has in recent months been somewhat under a cloud; that the vast majority of our journalists, men of great integrity and sincerity, feel now that they are almost outcasts in society, hated and feared rather than respected; and that some of them feel, as one with a long experience in Fleet Street said to me not long ago, that perhaps the journalist in this country now suffers from a lower status than journalists in almost any other free country in the world.
That, my Lords, is clearly not right. It is unfair to the vast majority of journalists as a whole. It is particularly unfair to that great majority of them who are employed in the provincial newspapers. If I may just add my own personal testimony, I know very well—because I have experienced it so often—the co-operation, tact and integrity of very many journalists with whom I have had dealings both in provincial and national newspapers, whom I have never known to betray a confidence or fail to appreciate the delicacy of a particular situation.
The noble Lord who introduced this Motion referred, as it were in passing, to the fact that journalism is an overcrowded profession. I sometimes think that a serious sociological study of the effects of redundancy in the world of Fleet Street would be extremely illuminating, and might produce some reflections of general application. This is directly related, I believe, to the first part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord 876 Francis-Williams. Where there is a danger of newspapers going out of existence, the individual reporter is obviously exposed to very considerable pressure to obtain stories in the teeth of competition and to get them accepted, and therefore to a tendency to over-write and to intensify the sensation. With too many reporters chasing too many stories for too few column inches, the personal strains upon their integrity are bound to be very great.
But just because journalists form a profession within an industry, the economic situation of the industry itself can affect that free expression of opinion. If the economics of newspaper publication are so difficult and delicate as the Report of the Royal Commission reveals, then we must clearly be even more on our guard lest these difficulties continue to reflect adversely on the freedom and integrity of the journalists themselves—a freedom even when there is liberty to abuse that freedom, which I believe must be defended with all the power that we have, if we are to have the free Press which our society requires.
The Royal Commission, in paragraph 313 of its Report, is somewhat realistically pessimistic in declaringthat there is no acceptable legislative or fiscal way of regulating the competitive…forces so as to ensure a sufficient diversity of newspapers.It goes on to suggest that a weaker newspaper, if it is to survive, must find managers and editors of enterprise and originality. That is clearly true. I think that perhaps I would have gone with it a little further if it had placed editors in front of managers and had included journalists with editors.
But if it is true that the newspaperman of this country has a lower status in society, even without lowering it as much as Her late Majesty Queen Victoria seems to have done, this may in part be due to the fact that the very conditions of a journalist's life divorce him in some way from society. I was rung up not long ago by a newspaper at about half-past one in the morning when they wanted an opinion from me on something. They had in fact got somewhat involved in a theological discussion which they thought I might be able to sort out. Mustering all the 877 friendliness I could on that question at that hour, I endeavoured to sort it out, and then I ventured to suggest very mildly that it was perhaps a little early in the morning. One could obviously imagine the sub-editor at the other end of the telephone blinking and saying, "Yes, of course. I had forgotten that you were bound to be in bed this time". This divorce of the journalist, by the nature of his work, from the ordinary lives of ordinary people is, I sometimes think, a serious situation which we need to realise; and, so far as society itself can ensure it, we should understand more widely the powers, the limitations and the difficulties within which the journalist has to work.
I believe, too, it may not be unfair to say that that part of the Press which we call the journalistic profession needs, indeed, to make its own nature better known, and to attract better people into itself—and I say that without any reflection on those who are in the profession of journalism to-day. Perhaps one feels that most of all in the field of sub-editing, where sometimes one suspects that some pretty good reporter's work has not always had the fairness of treatment which it deserved when it reached the sub-editors' room. As journalism can be seen more and more as a profession with its own high professional standards, perhaps here we have at least one minor way (and not too minor, after all) of meeting this danger with which we are concerned. The former Lord Archbishop of Canterbury said in this House in 1960 that any real remedy must come from the profession and nowhere else, and with that I would agree. I would also agree with the noble Lord who moved the Motion, that it is essential that the powers of the Press Council be reconsidered and greatly strengthened, in order that from it may come a strong, united profession of journalism which perhaps, in the end, may prove to be the most effective safeguard against the dangers of concentration of ownership which, if uncontrolled, could be of the very greatest danger to our society.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
It is not my fault, and really the noble Earl must forgive me on this. As your Lordships know, we do not normally make a statement in this House until we have some news that it has been started in another place. I understand that in another place the statement to which the noble Earl refers is the third of a series of statements. That being so, I am bound to tell the noble Earl that it has not yet started, so far as I know, and although I myself was hoping, even before the right reverend Prelate spoke, that we should be in a position to make it. I cannot feel that we would be justified in making it yet.
§ EARL ALEXANDER OF HILLSBOROUGH
We like to be accommodating, but some of us are waiting to attend meetings outside the Chamber.
§ VISCOUNT HAILSHAM
I am merely telling the noble Earl, however impatient he may be, that it is not within my power, unless we were to break the conventions of the situation, to help him; otherwise, I would. I think the best thing would be if the noble Earl, Lord Drogheda, made his speech, and then I shall take the responsibility of asking my noble friend to make the statement here.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ THE EARL OF DROGHEDA
My Lords, it is some years since I had the temerity to address your Lordships. Indeed, I have done so only once before. Therefore, I would crave a measure of indulgence. Before making my few remarks, I should declare a personal interest in that I am managing director of a specialist paper called the Financial Times. I am not a Press lord, as the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, recognised; I am simply a Lord connected with the Press. I suppose he can say he is the same, and my noble friend Lord Arran likewise. I think the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, has done very well to initiate this debate, and I thought he made a most reasoned speech. He himself is a very well-known Press figure, and I always read with great interest his weekly column in the New Statesman, 879 comforted in the knowledge that he virtually never refers to the Financial Times, although I hasten to add that I do not regard this as a compliment.
It is well to recall why it was felt necessary in 1961, for the second time within fourteen years, for a Royal Commission to be appointed to inquire into the state of the Press. On this occasion the Royal Commission, presided over by the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross, who produced a most masterly Report, did not concern itself primarily with general ethical questions. Its appointment arose, as the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, said, out of two major events in quick succession. One was the decision to stop publication of the News Chronicle and the Star, and the other was the fight for the control of Odhams Press, a newspaper and publishing group which itself had absorbed the successful George Newnes group only a few years earlier. The first of these two events spotlighted the weaknesses and strengths of newspaper economics, and the second the tendency towards concentration of ownership—a tendency which is by no means confined to the world of publishing.
The death of the News Chronicle (for it was a death, although its good will was acquired by the owners of the Daily Mail) was a lamentable event both for the country and for the newspaper industry. It was tragic that a paper with its sturdy tradition of independence and with a circulation of some 1¼million copies a day, could not survive. The hard economic fact was that it was competing with others with daily sales ranging between 2 million and over 4 million copies a day. It was regarded as a popular newspaper, and it had to face competition from these very much more powerful rivals. Had the News Chronicle been able to take itself out of competition with them, and had it been able to modify its image to something more like that of, perhaps, the Daily Telegraph, which had a rather smaller sale—not much smaller; substantially about the same—its fate might well have been different; but, as a popular paper competing with larger and stronger rivals, the News Chronicle could not attract enough advertising to make a profit. The same held true of the Star, although here the considerations were not in all respects identical.
880 There are people who argue, from what happened, that there is something pernicious about advertising and that it should in some way be penalised. The Royal Commission had before it various proposals for a tax on advertising and other devices for diverting advertisements from successful to financially less secure papers. I am glad that the Royal Commission rejected these proposals, which I believe to be both bad in themselves and ineffective as a means of helping the Press. It would, I think, be naive to imagine that because an advertiser was forced out of the paper of his choice he would spend his money in some financially insecure paper and thus help to secure its survival. People advertise where they do because they get results. You cannot make a newspaper a good one by forcing advertisers to support it. If newspapers lack advertisements, it is generally because as a newspaper, either editorially or managerially—and I hope that the right reverend Prelate will note the order of those two words—is failing to secure public support, and not the other way round.
The exercise of such controls as these would, I feel, damage the Press and also the general industry of the country, because Press advertising is important to a very large section of the industry of a country, as we have seen recently in New York where there was a long stoppage. Moreover they would be a very dangerous first step in official control, beginning as control of advertising in the Press but ending, perhaps, in control of the Press itself. The basis of a free Press is, to my mind, financial independence, and I know of no better way of ensuring this than through the medium of advertising revenue. Without advertising revenue, the selling prices of newspapers would have to be materially increased and they would not be able to maintain the quality of their services. I think we should tend towards a plethora of small circulation, financially insecure papers, each consisting of a very few pages and giving a poor news service. As the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, has said, papers are being sold too cheaply to-day; and one can accept that as a proposition, in the case of the Financial Times, in order to break even we should have to charge something approaching 2s. 6d. a 881 copy, which is not a very good service to people because it would be very expensive to buy the paper.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, I was not suggesting—and I think nobody would suggest—that the entire revenue of the paper should come from sales. It has never been done; and no newspaper in this country would balance its books in that way. Advertising revenue and sales revenue have, in my view, in many newspapers got out of proper relationship with each other. You want an increase in sales revenue coupled with some in advertising.
§ THE EARL OF DROGHEDA
I accept that as a proposition; but I do not consider it is realistic to think of a mass of small circulation newspapers giving rather an indifferent service in a world which is so dependent now on mass means of communication. But, having said this, I should like perhaps to contradict myself, because I feel that large advertisers have a responsibility, when drawing up their schedules, to remember the existence of the papers which may be declining, and to sustain them. If they do not do so they are really assisting materially towards a reduction in the total number of newspapers—which is something nobody wishes to see.
Much was said in the Report about the efficiency of production and the utilisation of labour. It was pointed out that earnings in the newspaper industry are higher than in any other industry in the country, which, I suppose, is true. Nobody in the industry on either side is opposed to these high earnings. But with high earnings there should go a high degree of co-operation in ensuring the most efficient use of machinery and of equipment. It is true that efficiency in newspaper offices falls very much short of the ideal; though I think one should bear in mind the conditions in which newspapers are produced, with the necessity of working to a rigid deadline—as the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, will no doubt remember—and the rush of activity which requires what, on the face of it, seems a superfluity of men to deal with the situation. There is a very high degree of skill demanded, and this can be seen in operation any night in any of our leading newspaper offices. But there are still extravagant and out-dated practices which arise in 882 the main from the failure to adjust manning to the efficiency made possible by the introduction of modern machinery. There has also been a resistance to the introduction of modern machinery.
Undoubtedly men have, all too often, imposed checks on production when they felt they had grievances, without waiting for the agreed means of settling these differences to be given a proper trial. Managements, in the same way, have been anxious to give way to unreasonable demands for fear that production would be held up. Both sides must, and I think will, take steps to remedy this situation. The Newspaper Proprietors Association has taken the initiative in submitting to the trade unions what I believe is a very helpful memorandum to provide a basis for discussion of all aspects of this most complex subject, dealing with the problems of redundancy and pension schemes—all matters which are dealt with in the Royal Commission's Report. On the union side a fruitful start has been made—as the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, said—in a movement towards a reduction in the number of trade unions whose members are engaged in the daily production of newspapers. It is clearly in the long-term interests of those employed on newspapers, just as much as those who own and manage them, that the industry should make a proper use of its manpower and resources; and this, I genuinely believe, is reflected in the attitude discernible among general secretaries and others holding responsible positions in the unions who need no warning of the danger to their members if London is to become an impossibly extravagant printing centre.
I should like to refer briefly to the Royal Commission's proposal for reconstituting the Press Council. We have already been told by the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, that agreement has been reached—which is true—among all bodies making up the Council, on changes which would meet the Royal Commission's recommendations, by the appointment of an eminent public figure as chairman and by the opening of the membership of the Council to lay representatives. These, I hope, would not all be drawn from one sex; and I trust that in this matter an example would be taken from your Lordships' House. Also it has been agreed 883 to find more funds for the work of the Council, so I think, in this respect at any rate, the Royal Commission recommendations are being fully carried out. None of us can deny there has been a basis for criticism of the Press, although it would ill become me to particularise.
The reconstitution of the Press Council is certainly no "cure-all" but it can be welcomed. I believe the addition of lay members will be valuable provided that those chosen are unbiased and show an understanding of the way in which newspapers work. I particularly agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Francis-Williams, when he spoke about the Council "sustaining and supporting" the profession—those, I think, were his words. I would also suggest that the time may come when the Council is further enlarged and is required to embrace within its sphere of surveillance the fields of broadcasting and television. I do not propose to develop this idea now; but I think it is a genuine problem which is arising. We all worry too much about what the Press says and does; but there are certain programmes which need very careful observation in these other media of communication.
Finally, I turn briefly to the recommendations of the Royal Commission for establishing an Amalgamations Court to which proposed amalgamations above a certain size would have to be submitted. The Court's decision would be based on whether it thought a given merger would be in the public interest. My first feeling was that the proposal should be supported, and, indeed, in the evidence of the Financial Times before the Commission we expressed sympathy with the idea. At the time of the Odhams takeover, people were naturally much exercised about what was happening. They saw this tendency towards concentration going on and I think felt it very deeply. But, with time, doubts have risen in my mind both as to the efficacy and the appropriateness of the proposed form of control. It emerges clearly, from reading some of the evidence before the Commission, that the proposed Court would have been able to do nothing to save the News Chronicle as a separate entity, and the Royal Commission recognised that the proposed Court could do little 884 to prevent the absorption of unsuccessful papers, by recommending that such takeovers should be excluded from its purview.
§ LORD FRANCIS-WILLIAMS
My Lords, it was never suggested that the Court could do anything in the case of the News Chronicle, where the paper was at the stage where it almost certainly would have died; but it could have done something in the case of the takeover bid for Odhams. That is exactly the sort of issue which should come before such a Court, which would consider how far it would be in the public interest.
§ THE EARL OF DROGHEDA
My Lords, that, indeed, is true. I am simply saying that I am not sure that it is the right machinery. There are so many similar operations which could still arise. Of course, the Amalgamations Court could do nothing whatsover about actual closures. There remain the successful papers, which I believe will go on competing. But should proprietors wish to sell control, there are two alternatives: first, to sell to someone who does not already have a substantial Press interest, and such a transfer would be excluded from the Court's jurisdiction; and secondly, to sell to an existing group which already controls other newspapers. It seems to me that at the present time any one contemplating further expansion would think very carefully before acting, after the publicity directed on this matter by the Royal Commission. Furthermore, I suggest that anyone contemplating enlargement of his group by the acquisition of some particular successful newspaper would recognise that the success of that newspaper depended more than anything else upon its public image, and that it would be pure folly to try to tamper with it.
We are still far from having a single ownership of the Press, and I feel that if we ever come within measurable distance of such a condition public opinion would ensure a remedy. Public opinion can still be very powerful in these matters. And if we believe in the working of the democratic principle and the exercise of freedom in the conduct of our affairs, as we all do, I feel that statutory control is not the way to tackle this admittedly most difficult problem.