HL Deb 20 July 1983 vol 443 cc1159-70

3.2 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich rose to call attention to the report of the Press Council on the case of Mr. Peter Sutcliffe; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This afternoon I propose to raise two issues. First, and by far the most significant, is the behaviour of the press in the Sutcliffe case and the judgment of the Press Council on that conduct. Secondly, I want to touch on some of the wider issues involving the Press Council: its general reputation, the attitude of proprietors and editors towards it, and its resources.

First, then, the Sutcliffe case itself. Peter William Sutcliffe was, on 22nd May 1981, convicted at the Central Criminal Court on 13 counts of murder. All had taken place in Yorkshire and Lancashire and had been committed over a period of six years. In the course of this series of attacks, several other women were severely injured but survived. Many of the women concerned were prostitutes, but others included a shop assistant, a civil servant and a building society clerk. The last was Miss Jacqueline Hill, a 20-year old student at Leeds University.

During the period of this murderous series of attacks, many hundreds of thousands of women in the areas concerned had been put in terror of leaving their homes alone at night. Inevitably, as fears mounted, a great deal of media attention was concentrated on these crimes and on the skill—or lack of it—so far as the local police investigations were concerned. Ultimately, in January 1981, Sutcliffe was arrested in Sheffield by two South Yorkshire police officers who were on routine anti-vice patrol. They noticed false number plates on a car and arrested the two occupants, one of whom was Mr. Sutcliffe. Just under 48 hours later, the West Yorkshire police press officer announced that a man was helping the ripper squad detectives with their inquiries. Soon there were television teams stationed outside Mr. Sutcliffe's home, and journalists were pouring into Bradford and Dewsbury from all parts of Europe—and indeed from the United States.

As a result of what happened then—a wave of highly prejudicial pre-trial publicity—the then Solicitor-General, Sir Ian Percival, made a statement warning editors that a person accused of any crime, however serious, must be presumed to be innocent and was of course entitled to a fair trial. However, by this time, or shortly afterwards, bids for the story of Mr. Sutcliffe's wife, Sonia, were being pushed through the letterbox of her home, and Mr. Sutcliffe's father and members of his family were guests of a newspaper in a hotel in Lancashire. As the Press Council indicates in its report, public concern about the conduct of some sections of the media had reached such a point that within three days of Mr. Sutcliffe's arrest the Press Council announced that they would be conducting an inquiry into the behaviour of the media.

Thirteen days after this, following a story in Private Eye making allegations against the conduct of the Daily Mail, the mother of Mr. Sutcliffe's last victim, Mrs. Doreen Hill, gave a press conference in which she condemned the payments made by the media to people connected with the man charged with murdering her daughter. However, the Press Council pointed out in its report that Mrs. Hill's statement, unlike many of the other statements which were made at that time, was made on the very clear understanding that what was said would not be published until after Mr. Sutcliffe's trial had taken place.

Finally, following the opening of Mr. Sutcliffe's trial—at which of course the facts were not disputed; the only dispute was his state of mind—a letter was published on 6th May 1981, addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Hill from the Queen's Deputy Private Secretary, expressing Her Majesty's "sense of distaste" if substantial sums of money were indeed being paid to the family of Mr. Sutcliffe for their story. The next day the Press Council announced that their inquiry would be extended to include all press conduct in the case, including the allegations of blood money paid to the accused man's relatives and friends.

I turn now to the way in which the Press Council conducted its inquiry. It invited the views of all concerned—the police, the Attorney-General, and of course all the editors who were involved. It says that it received a very considerable degree of co-operation from many. But in paragraph 2.12 of its report it said this: Regrettably the same cannot be said of the reaction of all the editors. While some editors were forthcoming, it required a prolonged and detailed correspondence to obtain from others information, often given unwillingly, about their own newspaper's attempts to buy the stories of people connected with the case".

It is fair to say at the outset that the Press Council had already made its views clear on the abuses of cheque book journalism. Nearly 17 years ago, after the trial judge in the moors murder case, Mr. Justice Fenton Atkinson, made his anxieties known to the then Attorney-General (the noble and learned Lord, Lord Elwyn-Jones) the Press Council said in a statement: No payment or offer of payment should be made by a newspaper to any person known or reasonably expected to be a witness in criminal proceedings already begun, in exchange for any story or information in connection with the proceedings until they have been concluded".

This rule was of course breached coldly and quite deliberately by the Sunday Telegraph in 1979 when it entered into a contract with a prosecution witness in the Thorpe trial. It was breached just as deliberately by a number of newspapers in the Sutcliffe case. It was done by the Sun and the Daily Star, but other newspapers were involved as well. Three days after Mr. Sutcliffe's arrest, the Daily Express made an offer of £80,000 to Mr. Sutcliffe's wife—clearly, as the Press Council says, a potential witness and therefore covered by this rule. The Press Council commented: The Press Council censures the Daily Express for its breach of the declaration of principle and deplores the attempt it made to mislead the council". Likewise, the Sunday People was condemned severely, and the Daily Mail even more so. Not only, as the council reported, did the Daily Mail fail to disclose material clearly germane to the inquiry but, with the newspaper repeatedly being in contact with Mr. Sutcliffe's wife for over three months, they deliberately allowed her to imagine that they intended to agree to a lucrative contract, when they had no intention whatever of signing any such contract. The council said in its findings, that a group of senior editorial executives including the editor not only set out to deceive Mrs. Sutcliffe, but their conduct had the effect of artificially creating and sustaining a cheque book journalism market in her story". The explanation of the Daily Mail, the council said, amounted to a confession of gross misconduct.

I think three questions arise immediately from the findings of the Press Council. The first is the question whether Mr. Sutcliffe could have received a fair trial if he had denied his responsibility for these crimes. As I have indicated, the only issue before the jury was whether the verdict should be murder or manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. But what would have happened if Mr. Sutcliffe had said that all the allegations of the police were entirely baseless? In view of the pre-trial publicity, I do not think anyone could possibly persuade themselves that a fair trial would have been possible in those circumstances. Of course, I am well aware that the new Contempt of Court Act came into effect after the reporting of the Sutcliffe case, but in the limited period it has been on the statute book it has resolved few of the major issues which were involved in that case. Indeed, in a letter I received from one of the Law Officers since it came into operation, following another piece of highly prejudicial reporting of a case awaiting trial, the then Solicitor-General accepted that the new Act had not by any means found an entirely satisfactory answer to the problem.

I certainly do not favour the introduction of new repressive legislation on the law of contempt, but, just as clearly, what I and I believe many others want is an end to the catalogue of grossly irresponsible conduct chronicled by the Press Council in its report on the Sutcliffe case—conduct which has been repeated, I am afraid, in some less notorious cases since then. I hope that on this issue we shall he able to hear something from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, on the views of the Government. So much for the position of the law of contempt.

I turn now to the second issue which arises from the findings: the question of cheque book journalism. No one, I believe, can read this report, with its stories of scribbled notes from journalists promising huge sums of money being thrust through the letterboxes of the homes of Mrs. Sutcliffe's relatives and friends, without experiencing a deep sense of revulsion at what was done on that occasion. No one, I believe, can read of the remorseless harassment of the bereaved mother of the last of Mr. Sutcliffe's victims without being shocked by the almost indecent conduct of sections of the press.

In the face of the council's fierce criticism of that conduct, one would have expected at least some expressions of regret from the newspapers which were condemned so severely. There were, indeed, a number, but nearly all came from newspapers that had not themselves been involved. There was no significant complaint—indeed, no complaint whatever—against The Times, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and several others; but the editor of the Daily Mail—one of the newspapers censured most severely—was entirely unrepentant. The editor's response to the report of the Press Council was that it was, short-term. short-sighted and smug". He added that the criticism proved, Yet again that the Press Council still does not truly understand the concept of a free press". That, I think, is one of the most disturbing features of the response to the Press Council's report: the fact that newspapers so severely censured—the Daily Mail was not by any means the only one—rejected the findings of a tribunal financed almost exclusively by newspaper proprietors, with half its members representing the newspaper industry.

Third, I turn to what is in some respects one of the most difficult issues of all, and that is the calculated deceit practised by a number of newspapers in their responses to inquiries from the Press Council. For instance, in June 1981 the then editor of the Daily Express told the council that no money was offered by his newspaper to Mrs. Sonia Sutcliffe. A month later he repeated that statement, but seven months earlier one Daily Express reporter joined in an offer to Mrs. Sutcliffe of £50,000 for an interview. A few months later another Express man offered her £80,000, and the following day the deputy news editor confirmed in writing the offer of £80,000, saying: This does not represent our final offer". Two days later the editor himself—the man, of course, who had denied ever making any offer at all—wrote to Mrs. Sutcliffe saying: We will be happy to discuss any arrangement you may wish to make".

The House may be interested to know the editor's response when, armed with copies of the correspondence supplied by Mrs. Sutcliffe's solicitors, the Press Council invited him to explain the inconsistency between his repeated denials of having offered Mrs. Sutcliffe money and their own incriminating letters. The editor replied, some months later, that he had forgotten about these dealings. The council said that they found his lapse of memory "astonishing", and so, I suspect, does everybody else.

There was then the case of the News of the World. Their legal manager, a Mr. Douglas, himself a former member of the Press Council, denied that his newspaper had paid, or would pay, any money to Mrs. Sutcliffe. In fact, the correspondence supplied again by Mrs. Sutcliffe's solicitor showed that there had been a series of letters from this newspaper, one mentioning a fee of £110,000. Taxed with these inconsistencies, Mr. Douglas took refuge in bluster. He said that the lawyer of the News of the World had advised him not to enter into any further correspondence with the Press Council, and, indeed, that he had been told that the Press Council had no business reading the correspondence with Mrs. Sutcliffe in the first instance.

To demonstrate that it was not just the national press that was involved, the editor of the Yorkshire Post denied making payments to Mrs. Sutcliffe. The file of correspondence supplied by Mrs. Sutcliffe's solicitor revealed several letters making implicit offers, one estimating that the price could be as high as £1 million.

If any of these newspapers had caught a politician making such wholly untruthful statements, they would have demanded his instant resignation. They seem to apply rather different standards to their own conduct. I think we would be interested, again, in any observations the noble Lord, Lord Elton, will find it appropriate to make on these, I repeat, wholly deceitful statements made by a number of newspapers to the Press Council.

I think that the issues I have raised themselves raise a number of important matters relating not only to the press itself but to the Press Council. The council was established just about 30 years ago. following the report of the first Royal Commission in 1949. At first, it had not a single lay representative. Following severe criticism from the second Royal Commission on the Press in 1962, headed by my noble friend Lord Shawcross, the newspaper industry agreed that 20 per cent. of members of the council should be appointed from outside the newspaper industry. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Devlin, became its chairman and the council began to acquire, for the first time, a rather more impressive reputation.

In the third Royal Commission report in 1977, which was presided over by my noble friend Lord McGregor of Durris—who I am glad to learn will be speaking later in this debate—the council was sharply criticised for a number of failings. I fear that many of these failings remain to the present day—but another important change was made: now. 50 per cent. of the council's members come from outside the newspaper industry. But the council's resources, despite the strictures of the Royal Commission, remain severely inadequate to the present day. That is why there are interminable delays before the Press Council is able to publish its own findings, and that is an extremely important matter. Up to the present time, there has been no indication that the proprietors are prepared to make available to the Press Council the resources it clearly needs.

I am well aware, of course, that the press fear statutory regulations. I must make it clear at the outset that I do as well. I do not favour a statutory Press Council. I dislike press laws in principle—whether they provide for so-called communications councils, statutory rights of reply, or a general right of privacy. I am sure that many who favour such an approach are themselves sincere civil libertarians: but a number of the people who favour that approach can certainly not be described in such terms.

It is just because so many of us, in both Houses of Parliament, have opposed statutory regulation of any kind—and, to take just a single example, viewed with the utmost suspicion and doubt the special rights accorded to journalists in the last Police and Criminal Evidence Bill—that we find the conduct of the press so disquieting. The blunt reality is that some sections of the press regard the Press Council with scarcely-veiled contempt. While some newspapers undoubtedly take the views of the council seriously—and that is true of a number of newspaper offices and not simply of the quality press, because they include a number of tabloid newspapers—there is now a minority who care little for the council's views and are, as we have seen in the Sutcliffe case, prepared to say so in the most unambiguous language.

In the circulation war now raging in Fleet Street between the tabloids in particular, in which the defeated will face extinction, a boost in circulation is regarded by some newspapers as far more important than a rap over the knuckles, whether it relates to the Sutcliffe case or to an act of wholly indefensible intrusion directed against a member of the Royal Family or against a private citizen. If this process continues—if there are more Sutcliffe cases and more examples of indefensible intrusion into privacy—I believe that there will be increasing demands that Parliament should take a hand.

As I have made absolutely clear, I—and many others, I know—would deeply regret such a development. But it is now time that the newspaper industry—and particularly its three principal proprietors—put its own house in order. If it fails to do so, the industry itself will do great damage to the cause of a free press. I beg to move for Papers.

3.25 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for giving the House an opportunity to debate this important report of the Press Council on the conduct of the press in respect of the Sutcliffe case. I hope the press will take note that the people taking part in this debate are not aristocratic backwoodsmen with a feeble regard for the freedom of the press. The noble Lord, Lord Harrris of Greenwich, served his time as a journalist and retuned to the old "black art" between political engagements. The noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, was chairman of the last Royal Commission on the press and under his leadership it produced a sensible, shrewd and liberal report. My noble friend Lord Jacobson and I have spent a lifetime in newspapers—some of it at the rough end of the trade. We know well the difficulty of reconciling high ethical standards with a need to stay in business when faced with less scrupulous competitors.

We have a pretty good turnout for this debate, but there are some regrettable absences. I am most disappointed that no newspaper proprietors who are Members of this House are taking part in this debate. Nobody wishes to stifle newpaper editors—and nobody wants them stifled by their proprietors—but the proprietors must recognise that they and their editors have a joint responsibility to the public, and the proprietors should take care that their editors conform to the general views of the Press Council in respect of that which constitutes decent press conduct.

I am aware, too, that many people who criticise cheque book journalism dislike not only the dubious cash element but also the kind of information that cash elicits; stories of national betrayal, of violent crime and of sexual depravity in which unregenerate man takes a fervent and indeed legitimate interest. Those of us who are old defenders of press freedom are deeply concerned that a few national newspapers—just four of five—have gone beyond the pale in their search for information about the Sutcliffe case. They have aroused such public indignation that there is a danger of restraining information, which would restrict the freedom of all media. I hope that this debate will serve as a warning of that danger.

The safeguard of newspaper standards is the Press Council, which has produced this excellent and salutary report. I am afraid that the council is being kicked around a little these days, and I am quite sure that in this debate there will be some constructive criticisms suggesting the way in which the council could be strengthened. It is said, for example, that the council takes so long to reach some of its decisions on complaints made by individuals that the offence has passed from the public mind before it is redressed. It is also complained that offending newspapers have diminishing respect for the council's judgments against them—indeed, that they are contemptuous of all public criticism—and sometimes fail to give judgments of the Press Council against them sufficient prominence.

If that complaint is justified, as I am sure it is, the only sanction that the council possesses—which is to require the offending newspaper to print the council's condemnation—is eroded, and that is a matter for some public concern. The Economist has suggested that the council should be given legal power not only to compel an offending newspaper to print the council's judgment but also to prescribe the display it should be given. I am a little tempted by this because it is the only legal sanction ever suggested for the council which is barely tolerable. I remember, however, that during the 30 years of the life of the council only one national newspaper has refused to print the council's judgment—and that was the late and unlamented Daily Sketch. A legal sanction of this kind could easily be a first step to less acceptable legal restraints, to totally unacceptable legal restraints. The problem of display could easily be overcome if newspapers would simply accept the convention that judgments should be put at the top of a column on a right hand page in the front half of the newspaper. There they would not escape being read by all their readers.

The Press Council was created 30 years ago by newspapers which were most reluctant, and which agreed only when there was a threat of legislation, to set up a council. This was four years after the recommendation of the first Royal Commission on the Press. I remember well the reluctance—I shared it—because none of us could see how there could be a council unless it was equipped with punitive sanctions; and the idea of control was abhorrent to us after three centuries of struggle for press freedom. In any event, under threat the voluntary press council without legal sanctions was set up with the duty of preserving the freedom of the press and its character in accordance with the highest professional and commercial standards.

Years later, inquiries into the Vassall and Profumo affairs left the press with a tarnished image. "The lesson was clear", wrote Cecil King, then chairman of the Newspaper Publishers Association, "We had to put our house in order. If we did not somebody else might do it for us and that could be crippling and unpleasant". That is the situation again today. If the press do not put their house in order somebody else will do it for them and it could be crippling and unpleasant. So in Cecil King's day it was decided to appoint, at last, a lay chairman and some lay members, because a council consisting entirely of the press could be suspected of forgiving one another's trespasses.

Lord Devlin, the first lay chairman, won a good deal of confidence among the press and the public. If the Press Council has failed, as I am afraid it has, to keep up that reputation, it is partly because, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, the newspapers have not over the years provided enough money and staff to enable it to operate with sufficient speed. However, the newspapers have opened their famous cheque books a little more widely recently; they have increased the council's income by 40 per cent. This has made it possible to provide a fast process for certain cases; but I imagine that the criticism is right that the Press Council has need of much more ample funds to run a much more important operation.

But there can be no complaints about the report that we are discussing this afternoon. Sutcliffe was arrested on 2nd January and brought before the court on 5th January. The unprecedented amount of information printed around these events, and the indiscreet press conferences arranged by the police, aroused fears that the media collectively could well be accused of appearing to make a fair trial impossible. At that stage. only two days later, the council announced that it would make an inquiry after the trial. After Sutcliffe's appearance at the Old Bailey a few months later, the council decided to broaden its inquiry into all aspects of the case, including money payments to relations of witnesses. The account in the report therefore deals with three main issues: fair trial, cheque book journalism and harassment.

Of course, publication of the report could not be considered until an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal had failed and it later became known that there would be no appeal to the House of Lords. The report was published in February this year, and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Harris, would have called our attention to it earlier but for the hiatus of the general election.

The report must disturb anybody who reads it, and particularly journalists with a pride in their craft; it must disturb them by its documented account of the cavalier attitude of the media to the rules of contempt, of the cruel harassment of the accused man's wife and of the parents of the last victim, of the hypocrisies of the newspapers flashing their cheque books, and of their subsequent evasions when the council asked them for details.

The council has been wrestling with the problem of cheque book journalism ever since 1963, when Vassall profited from publishing his memoirs in a newspaper. Two years later the council issued a long statement in which it condemned as immoral. the practice of financially rewarding criminals for disclosure of their nefarious practices by way of public entertainment Then during the terrible Moors murder trial the chief witness for the prosecution said he had been receiving weekly payments from a newspaper under a contract which involved providing information.

The then Attorney-General, my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones, said he hoped that, even before any Government action is taken Fleet Street will put its house in order. A few months later the Press Council, after consultation with the editors, made a declaration of principle. The declaration said that no offer of payment should be made by a newspaper to anyone known, or even reasonably expected, to be a witness in criminal proceedings already begun until those proceedings had been concluded. The declaration further stated that no payment should be made for articles to people who engaged in crime or notorious misbehaviour, where the public interest does not warrant it". There obviously are such cases, but it could be an escape clause for almost any article of this kind.

Nevertheless, the principle was pretty well observed until this case, and although it is impossible to justify the behaviour—which was outrageous—one can see that the temptation was enormously strong. But that does not excuse it in the slightest degree. This was the murder case of the century. The murderer had gone for five years undetected, in which he had killed 13 people. and it was a state of affairs in which the women of Lancashire and Yorkshire were afraid to leave their homes at night. The justification cannot be sensation. This is not the last sensational case which is going to come before us. One wonders what will happen when the next sensational case comes along. How will the press behave?

The Press Council, contemplating the evidence they had unearthed, could hardly just sit still and publicly lament. I understand the pressures they were under to take some action. They decided to extend their declaration of principle, and they reached their decision this time without any consultation of the kind they had undertaken in 1966. I can understand that, too, in view of the attitude of some of the newspapers; it might have taken years before they could arrive at a publicly acceptable consensus. The council believe that their original declaration about payments to potential witnesses is strong and embracing and does not require amendment. But they give warning that the earlier in the criminal proceedings the question is asked whether this or that person is likely to be a witness, the more unreliable the answer is likely to be.

In this case the editors were taking the decision that the person would not be a witness within a few days of the charge being levelled, in the week after the first charging of Sutcliffe. An editor. the council says, must do his best to assess the ways a case may develop when it comes to trial, and therefore the possibility of particular people being required to give evidence.

The council shares the general public abhorrence for press conduct which enables people to profit from their connection with a criminal. And now I quote: It has considered whether the incidence of such offers and the abhorrence and distate there is for them justify the suggestion that chequebook journalism or some forms of it should be banned by law. The Press Council does not favour further statutory restrictions on the press. It believes a legal prohibition of payments to people for their stories is neither wholly desirable nor likely to prove practicable. The Council is satisfied, however, that unless the press itself regulates its conduct, calls for such legislation are likely to continue and eventually to prevail. Indeed, unless newspapers demonstrate more effectively than several have done in this case their support for the spirit of the Council's Declaration of Principle the Council itself would find it difficult to argue against statutory restriction of the payments they make for stories or information.". This very strong point has been supported by some of the newspapers. For example, the Daily Telegraph said: The Council is reflecting the public mood about what should be proper behaviour by newspapers. Editors would be foolish to strike attitudes of defiance"— which, of course, they have done. If voluntary restraint is ignored. they will be playing into the hands of politicians, some only too happy to go along with statutory controls on the Press. The point The Times made was similar: What is worrying is that there appears to be less common acceptance in Fleet Street that codes, more often preached than observed. soon lose any value. Yet every Editor must prefer to operate and compete in a voluntary collaborative climate which imposes certain restraints and responsibilities than one in which the law itself makes most of the Editor's decisions for him. This not only concerns contempt and cheque book journalism, but the whole hysteria of Press coverage about some members of the Royal Family and other personalities in the public eye.". The point was put in even stronger language in the Observer: Newspaper Editors will do no good to their cause… if they show bland disregard of the Press Council's findings. Papers which cavalierly invent stories, which hound members of the Royal Family and regard both decency and truth as commercially inconvenient have no right to complain if others seek to clip their ragged wings.". Finally, I come to the controversial extension of the declaration of principle. The declaration originally did not bar payments to people related to or associated with those engaged in crime. I quote: The Press Council has now come to the conclusion that such payments are wrong. It believes that a large body of public opinion shares that view, however common such payments may have been". So in future the council will judge cases on these lines: Just as it is wrong that the evildoer should benefit from his crime, so it is wrong that persons associated with the criminal should derive financial benefit from trading on that association". The council adds: In effect, the stories and pictures are sold on the back of crime. Associates include family, friends, neighbours and colleagues". It is this extension of the principle which has upset some most reputable journalists. Mr. Charles Wintour believes the council has moved too fast. The Observer has "grave misgivings" about the new guidelines, both in principle and in practice, and recommends that the council should meet editors and discuss how to make its guidelines more workable.

The Daily Mirror, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, mentioned has escaped criticism in the report. believes that the Press Council has gone too far, that its changes are wrong in principle and unworkable in practice.

As I have said before, I think the Press Council was right to take some action to bring itself and the newspapers into line with public opinion. Yet I have a certain sympathy with the critics I have quoted. The Press Council is shortly to have a new chairman and I suggest that he should have a series of individual meetings with editors to discuss ways in which the extension of the principle could be made workable and, because it is made workable, could gain respect.

Editors live curiously cloistered lives. They arrive at their offices before luncheon and often leave towards midnight. Most of their time is spent with other newspaper men. They learn from their messengers a great deal about public opinion on almost every subject. But they seldom have direct experience of how people view the media. There is today among ordinary people a growing general ambivalence towards the media. The media are a Jekyll and Hyde. People are gripped by them and sometimes resent their own enslavement. They often feel that the papers, on the one side, and television, on the other, have become a two-headed monster with excessive power. Newspapers may have devoted readers. but the press as an institution has few friends and it might have few defenders if the conduct of several newspapers inspired proposals for repressive legislation.