HL Deb 14 May 1981 vol 420 cc620-2

3.2 p.m.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the breakdown of the voluntary agreement between newspapers concerning cheque-book journalism, they propose to legislate on this issue.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, cheque-book journalism takes many forms, some of which are inherently distasteful. The Government believe that it is preferable for the practice to be controlled by voluntary restraint—in the case of the press, through the influence of the Press Council. We are, none the less, considering the feasibility of legislative controls in relation to published accounts of criminals and their activities, but I would not want to underestimate the difficulties both of principle and of practice in the way of legislation, or the sensitive issues which this would raise.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that sympathetic reply, may I ask whether he would not agree with the utter disgust of the public that violent criminals and their immediate families should gain from their crimes and that the distress brought to the parents of victims is utterly distasteful? Would he further agree that the Press Council, as I understand it, can only censure newspapers?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's concern, and also I share her expression of views about the sympathy with the families of the victims who are so distressed by the reports to which my noble friend has referred. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary finds it abhorrent that criminals should benefit from publication of accounts of their activities. But, although I do not dissent from the last part of my noble friend's supplementary question, for legislation there are real difficulties of definition and enforcement and I cannot anticipate my right honourable friend's consideration of this matter.

Lord Boston of Faversham

My Lords, would the Minister accept that very many people share the concern which has been expressed by the noble Baroness and by himself about this matter and that the prospect of payments of this kind causes great indignation and distaste especially among the families of the victims of crime? Can he say whether at the moment the Press Council is in discussion with the Government on this matter, and whether it is coming forward with any proposals of its own? May I ask him to accept that any legislative proposals that he may bring forward on behalf of the Government will be warmly welcomed?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, of course, arising from my noble friend's Question, what we are talking about would be legislation which would create a criminal offence. I think I ought to say that the creating of a criminal offence for something which, in a profession, ought to be regulated by the profession, would be a very serious step indeed. That leads me to the supplementary question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Boston. All that I can say this afternoon is that I understand that all aspects of press treatment of the Sutcliffe case are to be investigated by the Press Council as soon as the criminal proceedings have been concluded.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether consideration has been given to giving the Press Council teeth?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I think that this is something which the Press Council themselves will want to consider in looking again, as I have no doubt they will, at their own guidelines.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that not even the doughtiest defender of the freedom of the press could make any excuse for some of the conduct of certain newspapers and television coverage recently? Nevertheless, the noble Lord's Answer will give a good deal of satisfaction to those who have thought seriously about the problem. One must remember the difficulty which the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, had in his Private Bill, when he attempted to legislate over a very small section of this problem. It is best to leave it to the Press Council to examine what has happened and then try to come up with a better principle than the one they have which, again to quote Lord Wigoder, gave newspapers and the media a certain outlet and excuse of behaving in the public interest in these affairs.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He shows that concern over this matter is shared on all sides of the House. I share with the noble Lord his expression of views as to the right way forward in the immediate future.

Lord McCluskey

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the law is not confined to criminal law, and that it is possible to provide by civil means a remedy for those who might feel aggrieved by the present situation? Have the Government considered the possibility that for every £1 paid by the press to the criminal or his relatives, they might have to pay £5 or £10 to the victim or his relatives?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, although I am not a lawyer, I am aware of the effect of what the noble and learned Lord has said. But the effect of it is that it does not prevent publication.

Lord Morris

My Lords, will not my noble friend agree that it is well-nigh impossible to encourage let alone to legislate for good taste?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, once again, I repeat that I think there is a view being expressed in all parts of the House that this is a matter which in the immediate future, should be, and I have no doubt would be, in their discretion looked at by the Press Council.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that when I complained to the Press Council recently about the publication by the Sun of the memoirs of Mr. Biggs, the edictor said in reply that he disagreed with the ruling given on a similar issue some 10 years before? Is not the right course of action in this matter to give the Press Council sanctions which it can exercise against editors who deliberately flout its earlier rulings?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this is a suggestion which was made just now by my noble friend Lord Lauderdale. I repeat the answer that I gave to him. In looking at its own guidelines, which I have no doubt the Press Council will be wishing to do, this is an aspect it will wish to consider.

Lord Denham

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, has been trying to get up for a long time; but when he has asked his question, and when my noble friend has replied, your Lordships may feel that it is right to go on.

Lord Brockway

My Lords, as the oldest member of the National Union of Journalists, may I ask the Minister whether he is aware that working journalists are absolutely opposed to this policy, as was shown in the recent annual meeting of our union? Is not the real difficulty that 80 per cent. of the circulation of newspapers is owned by three families and two individuals who are seeking their own profit rather than the welfare of the public?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord has spoiled his question. I was teeing myself up to agree cordially with what he said; but the second half of the noble Lord's supplementary question I cannot agree with. Therefore, I confine myself to saying that I agree with the noble Lord and I deplore—and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary deplores—the practice of what, loosely, we call "cheque-book journalism". I believe this is a matter to which the Press Council will turn its attention.