HL Deb 20 July 1983 vol 443 cc1176-94

4.8 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, I, too, am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hams of Greenwich, for initiating this short debate which we are now resuming. I speak as a layman, and that will become increasingly clear as I proceed. In May 1981 I expressed concern about cheque book journalism and I then referred to the Sutcliffe case. On various occasions since then I have expressed concern and have received great support in this House. But since the Press Council report could not be published until after the appeal was heard and dismissed, there was no way that we could really discuss it in full.

It takes a sensational series of crimes—horrible crimes—to bring to the surface the extremely unattractive habit of offering blood money, as it is called (perhaps that is a very appropriate expression) to relatives, associates and friends of violent criminals, whether before a trial or afterwards, as we have seen. I can understand the greed—perhaps it may be want, for they may be in dire circumstances: they may indeed be very poor—shown by these individuals when they are approached and offered large, very tempting sums of money to sell their stories for us to read, if we wish.

However, perhaps one of the most unattractive aspects is that absolutely no thought was given to the hurt, misery and disgust felt by the families of the victims. As both noble Lords have said, Mrs. Hill, the mother of the last victim, who may have been the only articulate person among the families—there were a great number of people involved in the killings—showed herself remarkably courageous and has done a great deal to help the Press Council to come to its findings. Another unattractive aspect is that none of the families of the victims was approached because their stories were not worth buying.

As both the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, and the noble Lord. Lord Harris, have said, the Press Council has changed its declaration of principle to cover such payments to relatives and associates of violent criminals. I wonder myself whether this will result in better journalism. I hope so. I feel that we should give the Press Council all the backing it needs, which might mean extra finance to help it to produce some reports more quickly. As the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, has remarked, there was no delay in publishing this report.

The Press Council has not asked for legislation. If that is its feeling, I think that we should abide by its decision until the press have been given another chance to put their house in order. We live in a very violent world. But we, as individuals, must do all that we can to see that crimes as appalling as those committed by Sutcliffe and other criminals are not rewarded by certain sections of Fleet Street which can afford to pay. When they pay, their main reason is to raise the circulation of their newspapers. The Press Council report is a comprehensive and excellent document into which a great deal of time and trouble has gone. I hope that many noble Lords will read it. I have read it a number of times. It lays down guidelines for the future of the press. I can only pray that the press pay heed to them.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, I feel that, following an admirably brief speech by my noble friend Baroness Sharples, I should not make this statement. I believe, however, that it is customary to do so, and I remind future speakers in this debate that, as a result of the 20 minutes' injury time spent on the Statement, the time limits now mean that the debate must end by 5.54 p.m. and that my noble friend Lord Elton must begin his speech at 5.34 p.m.

4.14 p.m.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, I have no doubt that the announcement of the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, will give me more than enough time to develop the few remarks that I want to make on this extremely important report. It is important because it deals primarily with the administration of justice and with the effects on the administration of justice of certain activities in a particular case, first, by the police, secondly, by the press, and, thirdly, by the Law Officers of the Crown. It also leads us to reflect on the role that the Press Council has played to date and the role that it should play in the future.

In the course of the conflict of interest that arose during the early stages of the Sutcliffe investigation, arrest and committal proceedings, I start out from the fundamental premise that the most important factor by far was that the administration of justice should be pure and totally unprejudiced. I regard this as far more important even than the other important factors that arose in this case, such as the desirability of putting to rest at the earliest possible moment the fears of a large number of women in Yorkshire.

That the administration of justice was grossly impaired as a result of the various activities disclosed in this report is not, I think, in any doubt. But I am sorry to have to say that the first and main responsibility for that arose with the police themselves. I can, of course, understand the feelings of the police force about investigations over many years, painstaking and, as we now know, not extremely competent, and the relief that they must have felt when finally the suspect was caught. But none of those feelings justifies the extraordinary steps that the police took at the very beginning of these proceedings. These included the calling of various press conferences—totally unprecedented—and the parading of prosecution witnesses before the press—totally unprecedented. All were understandable in human terms but all gave rise to a feeling among the press generally that the normal standards of restraint were to be abandoned in this case. I believe that the police themselves, in many of the activities that started this matter off, were in contempt of court. It is hardly surprising, when the police began in that way, that the press should have followed suit, as they did. It is clear from the report that the press themselves, on many occasions, involving many newspapers, were in gross and, indeed, grotesque contempt of court, whether defined under the old law as it was at that time or under the new law as it now is under the Contempt of Court Act.

There was a sort of mass irresponsibility that overwhelmed the press. It was due partly, I believe, to a feeling among many editors that is shared by the leaders of the flying pickets—that if enough of them break the law, the law will be helpless. A great many of them, one after the other, deliberately proceeded to break all the rules and regulations concerning the proper treatment of a person who was a suspect. There was comment before the proceedings began in the magistrates' court that went far beyond the accepted norm. There were photographs printed of the suspect at a time when identity might have been an issue for all that anyone knew, and a rather pathetic justification afterwards by one of the newspapers that the photographs that they had printed were not very clear and that the contempt was therefore perhaps not very great. There was reporting of the magistrates' court proceedings in breach of the law at that time. All this went on unchecked over a period of some days.

The press, undoubtedly, were exercising their freedom. There have been occasions when I have been tempted to regard the freedom of the press and the responsibility of the press as being two sides of the same coin. I am not sure that that view is really tenable. I think that, in a sense, they are two quite separate coins and that we should not waste words in indulging ourselves in clichés about how freedom should be matched by responsibility. I have no doubt that all Members of your Lordships' House will agree when I reiterate that we support the freedom of the press, warts and all, because we regard it as the essential prerequisite of any form of free society. But I do not think that it is proper or appropriate to go on to say that therefore that freedom can only be exercised on certain terms or conditions. It does not accord with our own experience. I think our own experience is that the press is always responsible unless there is financial advantage to be gained out of being irresponsible.

I do not say that from any unduly cynical point of view. One must accept that the press consists of a series of commercial organisations operating in a very highly competitive atmosphere, desperately anxious to increase their circulation and to increase their revenue, particularly their advertising revenue. Of course, if a situation arises, as it did in the Sutcliffe case in the very early stages, in which there is increased circulation to be gained by flouting all the proprieties, then it is not entirely surprising that many newspapers will succumb to that temptation. Where that is the situation—and it clearly was the situation; that is abundantly apparent from reading the report—it is more than ever important that the law should be enforced. That is why I had to say when I began my remarks that this report raises queries not only about the behaviour of the police and about the reactions of the press, but also about the reactions of the Law Officers of the Crown.

It was right, proper and appropriate that the Solicitor-General should warn the press at a very early stage of the dangers into which it was running. What I must confess I find a little difficult to understand is why, in due course, the Attorney-General decided not to take any steps to deal with any of the newspapers where such obviously flagrant contempts had been committed. Indeed, in due course the Attorney-General replied to the Press Council's inquiry about that matter in a letter that is set out on page 51 of the report. I do not need to read it; I need only say that I find it entirely unconvincing. The Attorney-General's reply was to the effect that as in due course—months later—it so happened that Sutcliffe pleaded guilty, at any rate to manslaughter, and did not dispute the facts of the various killings, it may well be that in fact there was no prejudice and, therefore, the Attorney-General was not going to prosecute for the original contempts. As I have said, I find that unpersuasive and I am bound to say that I find it more than a little unfortunate.

The Attorney-General's view was criticised by the Press Council; and, indeed, one or two responsible newspapers, particularly The Times, indicated how undesirable they thought the conduct of their fellow journalists had been. Unless steps are going to be taken to enforce the law where contempt is as flagrant as this, it will go on, and it has gone on. It is not so long ago since we had another notorious case of a man called Fagan. and once again, no doubt because no steps had been taken in the Sutcliffe case, the newspapers set out on a field-day of prejudicial comment before the trial. In those circumstances it is quite clear that it is only if the law is going to be enforced in relation to contempt that the activities of the press can be held in check. It is idle to regard it as possible that the press can be held in check either by reports of the Press Council or by debates in your Lordships' House.

It was not only contempt of court that arose from the activities of the press in this case: the whole issue of chequebook journalism arose as well. Much has been said about that matter, particularly by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharpies. Let me suggest that the expression "chequebook journalism" requires a little thinking about. Chequebook journalism is in itself a perfectly normal and natural process in the sense that most of us who contribute an article to the press or give an interview on television expect to receive a very small cheque at the end of it. It is not the cheque book journalism in itself, or the payment for contributions, that is being criticised. It seems to me that the criticism of chequebook journalism comes under three quite distinct and separate headings.

First, there is the approach to people who are witnesses, or are likely to be witnesses, for their stories. That is in itself, in almost all circumstances, likely to be a contempt of court. It is made worse if there is payment to the witness. It is made even worse if the payments are contingent upon the result of the proceedings, as happened in one well-known case during the Thorpe inquiry. That is one type of cheque book journalism about which the Press Council has perfectly properly issued its guidelines.

The second form of chequebook journalism, which is also undesirable—and again the noble Baroness referred to it—is where substantial payments are made either to the criminal or to members of his family for disclosures which do not in themselves (they may not be published until after the trial) prejudice the proceedings but which nevertheless arouse a natural distaste in the community as a whole. That, again, is something that the Press Council has now decreed should cease.

Thirdly, there is a series of other circumstances, very difficult to define, that do not come under either of those two headings, in which, again, cheque book journalism would be regarded by most people as being undesirable. An obvious example of that is a police officer's disclosures recently published in one of the papers for which he has received, it appears, a very substantial payment. That type of activity is regarded by the whole community as being distasteful although it cannot come under any very clear category of improper behaviour.

The only other observation I want to make before I cease to weary your Lordships is as follows. We ought perhaps to reflect for a moment, in the light of this report, on the role of the Press Council itself. It has produced an admirable report. The Press Council's reports are always admirable reports. It makes its strictures about contempt of court, which, as we have seen, have been totally ignored since, because exactly the same type of behaviour took place in the Fagan case subsequently. It makes its strictures about cheque book journalism, as it has done in the past and as it no doubt will have to do again in the future, because there is no real probability that the press will comply completely with the recommendations which the Press Council has put forward—a matter which was referred to in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich.

It has also become clear that not only are the Press Council's guidelines ineffective to a very large extent but the Press Council itself is treated with contempt by many of the newspapers. It is quite clear from the account given in the report that over and over again the council's inquiries about, in particular, cheque book journalism were being hindered and impeded by the lack of frankness of various newspapers and their editors. In those circumstances, I do not think it is sufficient for us to say today that we can leave it all to the Press Council because it will sort it all out or it is sorting it all out.

I do not want to suggest that the Press Council should be given statutory powers. On reflection, there are, perhaps overwhelming arguments against that. But I do want to suggest that the law of the land should be used more extensively than it has been used to enforce the protection that we ought to have against the various evils that arose in the course of these proceedings. The law of contempt should be enforced. There should be laws against the worst types of cheque book journalism. Only a year or two ago I tried to introduce a short Bill into your Lordships' House. I was met with the objection from the Woolsack by the noble and learned Lord that the Bill was quite unnecessary and that we could leave it all to the Press Council and voluntary regulation. I do not believe that we can do so. I think that the Press Council itself could perhaps take the lead by helping to devise suitable legislation to deal with that evil.

Similarly, as regards the third aspect of the matter—namely, harassment, which I do not want to go into this afternoon—not only are there guidelines that the Press Council can lay down, which we can be confident will be ignored, but there is also useful legislation that could be enacted. The Press Council should play a constructive part in seeing that it produces not only various guidelines but legislation that will ensure that in future the type of evils that took place in this case are not repeated.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Hale

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, opened this debate with a very striking and forthright speech, with every word of which I am tempted to agree. I am also tempted to look just a little further and ask, "Where are we going?" The story as told by the Press Council is an appalling one. Perhaps we have not paid enough attention to the part played by the proprietors of the papers and to the part played by reporters who were receiving orders by telegrams every few minutes to obtain more information and to press for it and who, indeed, very often were working with the police either to get information from them or to give what information was available.

I remember this matter being canvassed in the report of the Royal Commission on the Police in 1962, when we had a long discussion (which, at the end, was more or less dropped), in particular about the practice of newspapers—mostly sabbatarian—which contracted with Detective Sergeant Blank and Inspector Blank to publish their reminiscences the moment they retired and to pay a very handsome sum for them, and who thus, in that connection appeared to have acquired an authority which might be dubious.

Most of my colleagues took the view that, on the whole, the evidence went to the point—and this has been pressed quite a number of times—that the association between the police and the press was frequently productive and had excellent results, and that in a system in which Sherlock Holmes has never notably been seen to perform, the evidence in so many cases was supplied by the informer and provided the main source of convictions.

I know it will be said—indeed, I will say it myself—"Yes, the standards of cheque book journalism as shown in this Press Council report are such that this has nothing to do with the normal association with the police". On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, has pointed out, there were some strange circumstances in connection with this matter which suggested more than a degree of co-operation. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, touched on the gentleman who has just been writing about the matter. I agree that it is not in the report; it is rather outside the sphere of the report.

The noble Lord suggests—and I agree with him—that when the press arrived on the scene the position of the police was already one of confusion. That that appears to be so is evidence for the fact that people attacked the management of the affair by the police, including I believe a very distinguished officer of this House. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, also said that he mainly attributed the troubles that had arisen to the action of the police. The monthly police journal, Police, dismissed this somewhat cavalierly and said that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, knew very well that all the editors of newspapers have lawyers to advise them on the law of libel, on the rights to publicity, and so on.

But I notice that in this month's issue of Police a somewhat different view has been taken which I think might appeal a little to the dubieties of the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. The magazine says: Ronald Gregory, if his career as chief constable of West Yorkshire had not included the Ripper saga. might have retired with the knighthood that normally goes with the job, but his memoirs, would hardly have been worth a bottle of Yorkshire Relish to the editor of the Heckmondwike Herald. Yet because he was the man in charge, and therefore personally responsible for the biggest foul-up in police history, he is to get £50,000 for telling his version of events in The Mail on Sunday." So in the midst of the biggest foul-up in police history, there may very well be temptations for many members of the press to take such duties on themselves and perhaps to go a very great deal further in doing that than they have ever gone before.

It is only a few days since the press reported the death of Dr. Bodkin Adams. Dr. Bodkin Adams was charged with one or two murders, the press saying that there were others in reserve. He was tried on charges of murder on the proposition of the Attorney-General of the day, the late Lord Dilhorne, that it was murder if death was accelerated by even a minute. That is a very frightening theory for doctors who, in hospitals, are known to be willing to ease the painful passage of a distressed patient who is willing for them to do so.

Dr. Bodkin Adams had to face the united press of the country, with the exception of the reporter from the Daily Express, Percy Hoskins, who is a very old, valued and respected friend of mine, who was threatened with the sack by Lord Beaverbrook for his obstinacy in saying that this case was being grossly exaggerated; that people went to Eastbourne to die, and they have died in the ordinary course and there is no evidence to the contrary. The case of the century was one in which Mr. Geoffrey Lawrence refused to put his client in the box to respond to the allegations, saying just what Percy had said, that there was no evidence at all on which a jury could convict. In the end Dr. Bodkin Adams was acquitted, and already we see the press announcing that "the greatest murderer of the century has just died". I suppose you are entitled to libel dead people, because we have no law against it.

Appreciating the importance of what my noble friend has said and the case he has put, I hesitate. I think that this case is a bad choice to take if you are going to try to enforce the law and the rules of the Press Council. I think the words quoted in the Press Council by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Diplock, are magnificent words on the rules of British justice and of the necessity of having access to free courts uninhibited and without pressure. That is a magnificent statement of the law. I am quite sure that the limited time available means that I ought to close my remarks at this moment, and I am grateful for the hearing that I have had.

4.41 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, the squalid episode which my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich has enabled us to discuss—and I thank him, as have all other speakers, for giving us the opportunity—highlights once again a recurring theme of anxiety about the conduct of the press. Subsequent speakers can only echo my noble friend's compelling opening speech. In particular, nothing further need be said about the appalling irresponsibility displayed in that instance by some newspapers.

It is true that if newspapers are free to be responsible they must also be free to be irresponsible. That is a price which has to be paid for a free press. But with the Sutcliffe case, as documented in detail in the admirably cogent and matter of fact report of the Press Council, a point was reached at which irresponsibility became intolerable. In theory the ethical standards which the press should observe are laid down and enforced by the Press Council. a self-regulatory body set up in 1953 following, as has been said, a recommendation of the first Royal Commission of 1949. That recommendation was not implemented until the Government of the day threatened the press with legislation.

The severe criticisms and recommendations of the second Royal Commission resulted in the introduction of lay members, and a few of the recommendations of the third Royal Commission which reported in 1977 were implemented, although several—and not the least important—have been ignored. During most of its 30 years the response of the Press Council to criticism of the press and of its own role in respect of the press has contained more than a touch of petulance, self-righteousness, and arrogance. Unhappily, my observation is that those who spend their working lives assessing and criticising others themselves lack political judgment when their own affairs are at stake.

In the past 30 years the British press has been reluctant to make concessions to public opinion in proper time and in a becoming spirit. I am certain that in the atmosphere of Britain today only a convincing determination on the part of the press to accept and conform to the rulings of a strong and respected council, which the knowledgeable public see as acting independently of press interests, will prevent the introduction of a law of privacy and a statutory body which can deploy legal sanctions against misconduct by the press. A more critical and better informed public will now insist that the press be responsible, and will see that it is made so.

A fundamental question arising in this debate is: are the objections to a statutory body sustainable? Should democrats fear the use of legal sanctions to impose responsibility upon the press? I believe that a recourse to law, however superficially attractive it may appear, would be a dangerous innovation. I am very happy that all other noble Lords who have spoken feel the same way.

The experience of the last Royal Commission may help to demonstrate in a little detail what would have to be involved in legal intervention. At the outset of its deliberations, most members of that commission sympathised with proposals for radical reorganistaion of the Press Council. Some witnesses proposed a press ombudsman modelled on the Swedish experience. Others proposed that it should be replaced by a statutory body appointed by the Government with legally enforceable sanctions for use against delinquent journalists. But, the more we tried to frame concrete recommendations along these lines, the greater the difficulties we encountered and the greater our anxiety at the Frankenstein that we were creating.

What would these sanctions be? Suspension from work? Or fines? If the former, there would have to be a register of journalists. How would they be defined? How would the register be compiled? It is worth remembering that in the past 12 months it has been the policy of our Government firmly to oppose at UNESCO attempts which have there been made to compile registers of journalists in order that they may be protected and given special privileges for which, if they break them and then if they break a code, they can be removed from their occupations.

If we were to proceed by fines what would be the tariff, and against whom would the fines be levied? Against editors? Publishers? Newspapers? Would there be a different tariff for newspapers in heavy debt as compared with those making ample profits? Would someone aggrieved by a decision of the new body have an appeal to the courts? At the end of the day we became so anxious about the potentially dangerous consequences of a council with legal powers and penal authority that we concluded that it would be better to tolerate the objectionable behaviour of a very small minority of newspapers and journalists than to fashion a strong instrument ready to the hand of a Government which might wish to exercise control over the press. Accordingly, the Commission recommended no essential change in the organisation, functions and powers of the Press council, because it was compelled to recognise, however dissatisfied it was with the council's performance, that only a voluntary, self-regulatory body is compatible with the maintenance of a free press. That has been the experience of nearly every other democratic country.

What, then, can be done in circumstances in which, on the one hand, the public will not and ought not to go on tolerating intolerable irresponsibilities on the part of some newspapers, while, on the other hand, the obvious remedy might bring intolerable consequences in its train? It is to be remembered, first, that the problem is chiefly a Fleet Street problem and even there it arises only from the conduct of a small number of newspapers. Do not let us forget that outside London there are something like 70-odd evening newspapers, 17 morning newspapers, 5 Sundays and over 1,000 weeklies, to say nothing of the 5,000-odd periodicals; and from these publications trouble very rarely, in statistical terms, arises at all. What we are talking about is a disease of Fleet Street. There is in fact strong resentment, which has been expressed to me, among editors and journalists in the provinces that they are tarred with the Fleet Street brush.

What is needed is obvious. It is a respected and voluntary Press Council supported by the industry, manifestly independent of the industry in policy and action but capable also, because it is sufficiently professional, of securing the confidence of journalists and editors. How can this be secured? There is only one possibility short of direct governmental intervention. The great majority of publishers must isolate and discipline the tiny minority of trouble-makers among publishers and editors. We must not forget to include the editors in circumstances in which the trend of the last 15 years has been running very strongly in favour of securing editorial independence.

If it be said that the Sutcliffe and similar cases are the products of intense competition among newspapers, the answer is that the market is the same for all competitors provided that the same ethical standards are observed by all. Therefore, what I think we must expect from publishers is a series of public commitments. There would be a longish list but I shall mention only two.

The first is that there should be a public commitment to providing adequate funding for the Press Council, in order, among other things, that it may have a staff adequate to deal efficiently with its work. At the moment, the Press Council lives from hand to mouth from year to year, its senior members having to go round the Fleet Street houses and the trade associations with a begging bowl. I think that 1983 was the first year in which the council was given an undertaking that it would be given next year the same income as it had received this year. Adequate regular funding is essential. It must be raised not as a matter of goodwill on the part of the publishers, but by some such means as an automatic levy on circulations; it must be raised by a body separate from the Press Council so that the council, as a self-regulatory agency, has no concern in raising its own money. Those I think are some of the essential features on the side of funding. I do not think that they would be difficult to achieve. They would certainly be difficult to negotiate, but other industries have negotiated similar arrangements and there is no reason why the press should not do so.

The second public commitment that I think must be entered into is an agreement on the part of all publishers to support the Press Council, to undertake to ensure—and this would be on the part of the publishers—that in all their publications editors will be required to observe the Press Council standards. There could be other agreements, too. One important agreement would be to publish, invariably publish, the adjudications of the Press Council. The publishers must act in this way or adopt a similar procedure to achieve the desired result, or we must have legislative action with all the risks thereby entailed.

The final question is this. How can the publishers be persuaded to act in this way? I should like to remind the noble Lord, Lord Elton, of the statement made by his right honourable friend when replying to a debate on the right of reply in another place on 18th February 1983 (at column 632). He stated that he shared and expressed the widespread dissatisfaction over the Press Council and the conduct of the press and hoped that the debate would be noted by the media and by the Press Council. He then referred to the duty—and I am not paraphrasing the word "duty", for that was the word that was used—of those rejecting statutory rights and obligations to ensure that other remedies were effective.

When the noble Lord replies, will he relieve the anxieties which many feel by confirming that the Government remain opposed to legislative intervention to secure better conduct on the part of the press or, at least, on the part of some newspapers? Will he also ask his right honourable friend to consider whether the Government might now express their earlier dissatisfaction to the small handful of publishers of national newspapers who are in regular breach of standards? Would he consider whether the Government might express this to those publishers in a private but vigorous manner? After all, it was only by such action that the Press Council was set up in 1953 in the first place.


Lord Jacobson

My Lords, I will join in the gratitude of journalists in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, for having initiated this debate. I also must declare certain interests. I am a life member of the NUJ which, to my mind very regrettably, has withdrawn from the Press Council. I receive a pension from the Daily Mirror group of newspapers and for a number of years I was a member of the Press Council and its Complaints Committee under the noble Lords, Lord Devlin, Lord Pearce and Lord Shawcross. That was about 10 years ago and at that time we thought that, despite under-funding and a very small staff, we were doing a reasonably good job. The adjudications of the Press Council were faithfully reported in most newspapers—they still are—and most newspapers provided the Press Council with the information they needed to come to a decision.

But what had not happened then, of course, was the circulation war, particularly at the tabloid end of the press. That war has now reached a height of ferocity which we did not encounter in my time on the Press Council and it has presented the Press Council with a vast increase in complaints. It has also presented the reading public with a great decline in the standards of popular journalism among some papers. Noble Lords are quite right to point out that this is not a general disease, but is confined to a relatively small number of newspapers in Fleet Street and is hardly applicable to the large number of papers in the provinces.

But we have to be realistic about this. The circulation war is not going to go away and readers are not going to give up reading newspapers because of unfavourable adjudications against those newspapers by the Press Council. Therefore, we have to ask: What are the alternatives? What can be done?Is the press Council, even if it got a big increase in its funds as other noble Lords have suggested—and which is essential—going to be able to cope in these new conditions? If not, is the only alternative recourse to statutory regulation on subjects like payments to witnesses, criminal associates, the right to privacy the right of reply and so on? Is that the only alternative, or are there others? I believe there are and I should like, if I may, to point some of them out to the House.

The first step, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, in particular and by other speakers, lies in the hands of a small handful of newspaper proprietors and publishers. Two of them are Members of this House. I propose to name them: they are the noble Viscount, Lord Rothermere, of the Daily Mail group and the noble Lord, Lord Matthews, who owns the Daily Express and the Star. The other is Mr. Rupert Murdoch, in particular as regards the Sun and the News of the World. The fourth big tabloid group is the Daily Mirror group, which has a good record in relation to the Press Council, although one of its papers (the Sunday People) was criticised by the report we are discussing. I have no authority to say this, but I believe that the Daily Mirror group of newspapers would associate itself with some declaration of principles and an acceptance of Press Council decisions and some code of conduct, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, and others. Where this initiative should come from is, I believe, from the Newspaper Publishers' Association. The chairman of that association is also a Member of this House, but is not here today. It is essential that any such move should be simultaneous so that no one paper gets an advantage over others and it should be publicly declared. That is the first step.

Some of my old colleagues, like my noble friend Lord Ardwick, might find it ironic that I, who have always feared, resented and opposed proprietorial interference with editorial decisions, should suggest this; but the plain fact of the matter is that proprietors do interfere with the editorial content of their newspapers and here is an opportunity for them, for once, to interfere on the side of the angels.

I do not think that this alone would be enough to re-establish the authority of the Press Council. As I said, the circulation war is not going to abate and things are probably going to get rather rougher; so there is at least a need to re-examine the working and the role of the council and to look for other ways to improve press practices, to protect the public and to protect the press against Government intervention.

Recently a book has been published called People against the Press—a rather provocative title—by Mr. Geoffrey Robertson. Mr. Robertson is a barrister with great experience of media affairs. He has also written and broadcast on media affairs and newspapers. The book is critical of the Press Council but not immoderately so, in my view. It comes up with some suggestions which are at least worthy of consideration by this House and by the newspaper industry.

The Press Council, right from its inception, has always had to wear two hats. One of its duties is to protect the press against political intervention. The second is to protect the public against unfair treatment by the press. The argument in this book—I am trying to summarise it now—is that it has never had the funds or the staff to be able to do both jobs satisfactorily. Therefore, a suggestion has been made. It is not an extreme suggestion because many of Mr. Robertson's ideas are quite moderate; for example, he does not suggest that the Press Council should be abolished or that journalists should be fined or expelled from the profession. Nor does he suggest that there should be statutory legislation. But he does suggest that there should be a division of the functions between the Press Council and other bodies. He also suggests that a reformed Press Council should be mainly responsible for formulating and maintaining a code of conduct, and that this code of conduct should be agreed by the newspaper industry by means of a contract between the Press Council and the industry. I believe this idea was first floated about 15 years ago under the commission which was headed by the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross, but it was not followed up. The newspaper publishers entering into a contract with the Press Council would bind themselves to observe the formulated code of conduct and to publish and abide by the adjudications of the Press Council.

The Press Council's role in protecting the press against legislation designed to interfere with its freedom should be taken over by the newspaper industry itself. I am dubious about this idea myself and I think that perhaps the Press Council should also retain some interest because, particularly under the noble Lords, Lord Devlin and Lord Pearce, it fought some notable battles against Governments as regards preserving the freedom of the press in certain respects. However, this idea is drawn up now. This leaves a very large area of activity such as unfair comment, the right of reply, outside the province of the Press Council. To fill this, it is suggested that we should have an ombudsman for the press—not entirely a new idea, but again possibly one worth considering.

The ombudsman, it is suggested, should have the status, the salary and the prestige of a High Court judge and should be assisted by a staff. His primary function would be to investigate complaints from the public against unfair comment based on misrepresentation or mistaken facts. He would have the authority to investigate these complaints and—if possible, by agreement; if not by agreement, then by authority—to order a newspaper to publish a correction in a position and with a prominence ordered by him.

This would remove from the Press Council the very difficult area of the right of reply, which has been discussed in the other House recently, and would give the public an access to an ombudsman, who, after all, is not a new concept in our life. Both of these ideas—the ideas of a Press Council entering into a contract with the newpaper publishers; and an ombudsman trying to reach agreement with the newpaper publishers about correcting comments and mistakes—have this virtue, that they both maintain a voluntary aspect and avoid the need for an edict by Parliament or by the law.

I think that these arguments are highly controversial. I can already hear the shouts from Fleet Street—in which, to be quite frank, I would join if I were still there—about the restriction of the freedom of editors to publish; and I can hear the complaints from the other side that this is not going far enough and that there ought to be statutory legislation. However, I think that these are ideas which ought to be discussed. This is a middle way and the discussion ought to begin, as other noble Lords have suggested, within the newspaper industry. It ought to begin urgently, because I am quite convinced that if it does not begin pressure will grow for statutory legislation, which will be a grave restriction on the right of a free press to investigate matters of real public concern.

5.13 p.m.

Lord Elton

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Harris, for providing this opportunity to discuss the report of the Press Council on Press Conduct in the Sutcliffe Case and to do so with such a weight of experienced and authoritative voices. The considerable cogency of the noble Lord's own speech was enhanced by his not inconsiderable journalistic experience. This is an important report dealing with matters of very real public concern. It deals with the standards of conduct and good taste, and of consideraion for the feelings of others, which we really ought to be able to expect from newspaper editors, reporters and others in a society which attaches importance both to free speech and the freedom of the press, and to the effects which their reporting has upon the nature of the society upon which and to which they report.

The sensitive and difficult issue of cheque book jounalism is the main subject of the report. The most objectionable aspect of press conduct in the case of Peter Sutcliffe has been the payment of large sums of money for stories and information to people related to, or associated with, Sutcliffe. The Government strongly share the views of noble Lords and of a great many other people who have condemned this type of cheque book journalism.

It is always wrong for crime to pay. It is both wrong and offensive that it should be made to pay on such a grand scale, whether the profit accrues to the criminal or to anyone else. And it is wrong, offensive and absurd that it should be made to pay by public organs that spend so much of their time deploring low ethical standards in public life and urging the Government to do more in the fight against that crime for which they themselves are providing the rewards. In those circumstances, there is a supreme irony, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris, pointed out, that the not infrequent calls that holders of public office should resign come from those quarters.

With my noble friend Lady Sharpies and others we welcome the firm line taken by the Press Council in condemning the conduct of the newspapers that have done this, and in the light of my noble friend's own experiences I think that her comments were a model of restraint. We welcome the council's action in strengthening its existing declaration of principle on cheque book journalism by asserting that: 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 went on to say: What gives value to such stories and pictures is the link with criminal activity. In effect, the stories and pictures are sold on the back of crime. Associates include family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. Newspapers should not pay them, either directly or indirectly through agents, for such material and should not be party to publishing it if there is reason to believe payment has been made for it. The practice is particularly abhorrent where the crime is one of violence and payment involves callous disregard for the feelings of victims and their families. We wholly endorse these views.

The Press Council has made it clear that it does not favour statutory restrictions to control distasteful forms of cheque book journalism. It has however sounded a warning to the press that unless it regulates its conduct by observing the voluntary guidelines, the council will find it difficult to argue against legislative controls. We also want to avoid statutory controls in this field if that is possible, and we sincerely hope that newspapers will adhere to the council's guidelines and regulate their activities by voluntary restraint.

The actual drafting of such legislation would be very far from easy. There would be many questions of definition, both of association and reward, some of them extraordinarily difficult, and many other formidable puzzles to resolve. The noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, has summarised a number of these difficulties with great clarity, and rested upon them—and upon the importance to our national life of a press that is genuinely free—his own rejection of legislation.

So far, we have shared his reluctance to deal with this matter by legislation. We have thought that for the newspapers it is better to rely on voluntary restraint and on the influence of the Press Council, just as in the field of broadcasting we have preferred to rely on the statutory duty of the Independent Broadcasting Authority to safeguard against offending good taste, decency and public feeling, and on similar obligations acknowledged by the BBC.

It has been regarded as a matter of fundamental importance to the tradition of press freedom in this country that the Government should not intervene directly in matters of press conduct. Newspaper editors, provided they keep within the law, are free to conduct their newspapers' affairs as they see fit and to publish what they wish. But there is a reciprocal obligation on the press to maintain the highest professional standards, and this is one of the reasons for the existence of the Press Council which was set up by the newspaper industry. The Royal Commission on the Press recommended that questions of press conduct, which cannot be resolved directly with the journal concerned, should be left to the influence of the Press Council. We are sure this is right and much prefer to see the newspaper industry regulating its own affairs in this way.

We cannot, however, rule out the possibility of statutory controls in this field if serious public dissatisfaction with the conduct of newspapers persists, and if that concern is not adequately met by the present arrangements. There are, as I have said, substantial practical difficulties of definition and enforcement. But no-one should assume that these could not be overcome if the case was strong enough. There is pressure to do so and the strong opinions expressed today make it all the harder to resist them. That consideration must emphasise to the press itself the importance of complying with the Press Council's guidelines.

The publication of the memoirs of Mr. Ronald Gregory, the former chief constable of West Yorkshire, writing in the Mail on Sunday, was referred to. We believe that these articles can only lead to further distress for the victims' families, that they have harmed the police service, which needs to retain the confidence and support of the public. Mr. Gregory was made aware of our views before the articles were published. He was also trenchantly informed of the views of many in his own profession by the article in the current issue of Police, to which the noble Lord, Lord Hale, referred.

Under the police discipline code, it is an offence to communicate information gained as a member of a police force without proper authority, but when they retire police officers are no longer subject to it. There was therefore no effective action which could have been taken to prevent Mr. Gregory from publishing his story. As I believe I said earlier in answer to other questions, the whole issue is now under consideration by the Association of Chief Police Officers. They are keeping in touch with us. As the noble Lord, Lord Hale, also reminded us, a good and proper relationship between the police and the press can be very helpful to the public good, and the noble Lord. Lord Wigoder, very properly drew our attention to the importance of the conduct of the police in these cases: that it should indeed be proper.

Since the Yorkshire Ripper case and arising out of the chief inspector's report to the then Home Secretary, the Home Office issued in December 1982 two circulars—Nos. 114 and 115 of 1982. These give advice to chief officers of police on the investigation of a series of major crimes and on relations with the press. They emphasise the dangers inherent in press conferences following the questioning or arrest of a suspected person in connection with crimes in which the media are closely interested. This advice takes full account of the relations between the police and the media during and after the investigation into the Sutcliffe case. It has been welcomed by the police and I believe that we are putting into effect the lessons we have learned.

As to contempt of court, in chapter 6 of its report the Press Council criticised the former Attorney-General's decision not to bring contempt of court proceedings against newspapers which had given extensive publicity to information about Peter Sutcliffe before his trial. The noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, added his own criticism to theirs. My right honourable and learned friend had expressed the view that because of the nature of the plea at the trial there was no risk that the pre-trial publicity had prejudiced the fairness of the trial. The Press Council suggested that the Attorney-General looked back at the issue with hindsight after the trial and applied a test which could not have been applied at the time of publication. The council appeared to overlook, however, the traditional principle that it is not in the public interest for prosecution to follow in every case where there is evidence against someone of having committed an offence. Taking into account, as the Attorney-General did, both the purpose of the law and the harm actually done, the argument that his decision was misconceived cannot, I believe, be sustained.

As your Lordships are aware, at the time of Sutcliffe's arrest the Contempt of Court Act 1981 was still before Parliament. Nothing in the Press Council's report suggests that the Act is deficient in providing protection against the risk of prejudice to a fair trial. In our view, therefore, the Sutcliffe case has not given rise to any need for further review of the law of contempt, but we shall certainly be keeping a very close eye on the way the Act in fact works.

A number of your Lordships were concerned with press intrusion on privacy. The Press Council's report condemned as wholly unacceptable and unjustifiable the pressures to which relatives of both the victim and the accused were subjected by journalists and other media representatives anxious either to interview or photograph them or to bid for the right to publish their stories. We share that revulsion. The council stated that: As many codes of conduct lay down, the press should do nothing which entails intrusion into private grief or distress". We entirely concur with that statement. It is to be hoped that the council's opinion will have an influence on the future conduct of journalists. We see no prospect, however, of reinforcing such moral precepts by statutory controls. We share the majority view of the Younger Committee, given in 1972, which concluded, so far as the press was concerned, that it was impossible to devise any satisfactory yardstick by which to judge whether the importance of a particular story should override the privacy of the people and personal information involved. Their view was that these were matters more appropriate for the Press Council.

The council's report also suggested that chief constables should be prepared to offer help to persons being harassed by the press. The council sought the former Home Secretary's views on this subject and quoted his response in full in the report. As explained there, such a move could be controversial and could seriously complicate criminal investigations. Nothing in the published report contradicts these conclusions and we see no need to issue advice to the police on this subject.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and many others, we have a deep suspicion of what the noble Lord called press laws. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, has given ample reasons why this should be so. We as a Government have so far consistently upheld the view taken by the last Royal Commission on the Press in its 1977 report that the press should not be subject to a special regime of law and that matters of press conduct should be left to the Press Council. We are encouraged that the Press Council is prepared to speak out strongly against unacceptable press conduct, as it has done in its report on the Sutcliffe case. There is clearly no lack of resolution on the council's part.

The essential question, however, is whether the council's rulings are seen to carry authority with newspaper editors and, in relation to cheque book journalism, whether editors heed the council's warning of the possibility of legislation if they do not regulate their own conduct. This remains to be seen. We very much hope that editors, in full knowledge of the dangers and possibilities, will act responsibly. It is their council. It is now urgently for them to put their own house in order, and I am sure they will note the very clear comments made on funding and other aspects of this matter by your Lordships during this debate. I do not doubt that the proprietors, whether members of your Lordships' House or not, will read with close interest the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Jacobson. Indeed, many of them are such that I shall be studying them closely tomorrow.

We have had a very wide-ranging debate which has served as a vehicle for conveying the concern of the House over a somewhat wider field than that covered by the Press Council's report on the Sutcliffe case. I think I speak for the whole House in saying that this debate will have fully justified itself if it concentrates the minds of those in responsible positions in the press on the very deep and real concern that very many people feel about certain aspects of the conduct of the press. We all know what the commercial pressures are, but to try to justify setting aside these concerns on the grounds that more newspapers have to be sold would be an unworthy and irresponsible reaction. Freedom and responsibility ought, as the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, put it, to be engraved on opposite sides of the same coin.

The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, asked how the press will behave in the next sensational case. How, indeed, my Lords? The House is justified in firing a warning shot rather close across the bows of the offending institutions. I hope that those concerned will take very careful note of what has been said and will appreciate the dangers in the present situation. If that point alone gets home, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will have performed a signal service in initiating this debate. The noble Lord can also count on getting a letter or two from me tomorrow. I know that, as he always does, he will say that I have not answered every point. This' is a weighty and serious matter of national interest, and it is of the greatest importance that those most responsible should listen closely to the tenor of your Lordships' voice.

5.29 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I shall respond only briefly before withdrawing the Motion for Papers standing in my name. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, need have no anxiety that he is likely to experience any reproach from me resulting from his speech. I am glad to say that, with one significant exception, I agree with almost everything the noble Lord said. I suspect that this is also the view of very nearly all those who have participated in what I believe has been a very interesting and rewarding debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I hope that not only editors but, as the noble Lord, Lord Jacobson, said, proprietors pay some attention to what has been said in this debate really on all sides of the House.

The only point upon which I have some lingering doubt relates to the law of contempt and the decision of the Attorney-General not to bring contempt proceedings against the newspapers which did flout the law of contempt in the Sutcliffe case in such a quite remarkable fashion. I know these decisions must be exceptionally difficult for any Attorney-General but, like the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, I think it was a profoundly mistaken decision. As the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, it is a difficult judgment; it is not necessarily right to bring them in every conceivable case, but what we had here was one of the most remarkable. sustained series of breaches of the law of contempt which we have seen in this country in the last 30 or 40 years.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, that what happened as a result of the failure of the Attorney-General to bring proceedings was that when the Fagan case arose there was another outburst of exactly the same type of conduct by a number of newspapers in Fleet Street. I will not press the point any further, but I am bound to say, like the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder, and I am quite sure the Press Council itself, I think that the decision made by the Attorney-General on this admittedly difficult matter was mistaken. I hope he will look at further conduct of this character by newspapers in the future in a far more rigorous fashion than he did on this particular occasion.

So much for the area of disagreement with the noble Lord, Lord Elton. Other than that, I think there has been almost unanimous agreement in all parts of the House about this matter. I think the report of the Press council is probably one of the most disturbing documents it has published since it was set up. I think that the stories of deceit by a number of powerful newspapers when they were practising their deceit on a Press Council financed by the newspaper industry itself are a very disturbing question indeed. The arrogant and insensitive editorials published by some of the guilty newspapers when they were criticised by the Press Council was just as disturbing.

The last point I would make is perhaps this: the noble Lord, Lord Elton—following what my noble friend Lord McGregor said—drew attention to the difficulties involved in a statutory approach so far as the Press Council is concerned—making it a statutory council. I agree with that entirely. I would be very loathe to move to a situation where we started having some form of press laws in this country. The difficulties of definition pointed out by my noble friend are obvious, but quite apart from the difficulties of definition I think there is something inherently undesirable in trying to deal with problems of this kind by means of legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Elton, said, however, in a very interesting passage of his speech, that the press should take note that if there were continued misbehaviour—and I summarise his argument at this stage—one could not rule out some form of statutory countrol. I hope that some of the people who have been so rightly and severely criticised by the Press Council paid due attention to those words, because I believe they represent a great deal of parliamentary opinion and a great deal of public opinion. If we can achieve that result from this debate. we shall have achieved something. Lastly, after again thanking all noble Lords who have participated in this debate, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.