HL Deb 27 July 1982 vol 434 cc125-7

2.50 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 they will reconsider legislative controls in relation to the publishing of accounts of persons charged or liable to be charged with crimes and their activities, where a close friend or relative of that person stands to gain financially.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lrod Elton)

My Lords, the concern of my noble friend is that crime should not pay, even by way of a journalist's cheque book. We can, of course, prevent a prisoner sending copy out of prison to the media. However, there are great practical difficulties in framing wider legislative controls, as suggested by the Question, and there are good grounds for preferring the voluntary approach. We therefore await with great interest the outcome of the Press Council's current inquiry into the problem.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply, and I appreciate the difficulties. Is he aware of the disgust and revulsion one felt when, within a few hours of the death of Prudom, there were two pages (four in all) two days running, written by his girl-friend? Whether she was paid I have not been able to check. Would my noble friend agree that there is now a possibility that Fagan's relatives are trying to sell his story?

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Government are aware of and share the distaste which my noble friend expresses for the practices she describes. The inquiry of the Press Council was mounted following the public outcry last year, at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper trial, concerning the alleged activities of certain newspapers to secure information and stories from Sutcliffe's family. It concerns all aspects of press coverage of the arrest and trial of Peter Sutcliffe in the light of the council's declared views on cheque book journalism, and we hope that this will result in a proper regulation of the practice.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, did this matter not also arise out of the trial of the Moors murderers? Are the Press Council really able to influence opinion strongly enough to make their adverse reports effective?

Lord Elton

My Lords, I am concerned to see that opinion influences the Press Council sufficiently to make them take effective steps.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, is not the position that the law of contempt might provide some answer if it were enforced, and that the decisions of the Press Council might supply some answer if they were enforceable? Will the noble Lord consider taking action under one head or the other?

Lord Elton

My Lords, where legal proceedings have been initiated, any publication which creates a substantial risk of impeding or prejudicing the course of justice in those proceedings is likely to constitute a contempt of court under the 1981 Act. A defence however is that the risk is merely incidental to the discussion in good faith of matters of general public interest.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, in view of the last supplementary question, may we take it that the Liberal Party has now come round to the view that a free press is a mistake?

Lord Elton

My Lords, there are so many mistakes to which the Liberal Party must come round to a view of that I could not say if that is even a contender.