HL Deb 18 February 1987 vol 484 cc1173-97

8.14 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the moral condition of the tabloid press.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I begin by submitting three propositions. The tabloid press has deteriorated; the tabloid press continues to deteriorate; and if possible this deterioration must be arrested. Since putting down this Unstarred Question originally intended for a short debate I have spoken to many people of various types and age groups, including the young. I have spoken to representatives of the Press Council and the National Union of Journalists. I have had special assistance from a gentleman who has had unique experience of the tabloid press. But in all that I say I commit only myself. These thoughts are just personal.

I am dealing with a subject which so far as I know has not been dealt with before. We have talked about the press, the media and so on, but we are now focusing on the tabloid press, which of course is less familiar to your Lordships than some other branches of the newspapers. I do not come to the House with a magical cure. I want to produce a diagnosis which is accepted and I shall go away hoping that I have offered suggestions for the first step towards curing this painful disease.

It is certainly difficult to know what one means when one talks about a deterioration in the tabloid press. There are Fleet Street pundits better qualified in a sense than I am to speak about these matters though they will have their own bias. They tell me that the tabloid papers today are not newspapers in the old professional sense. More than one of these gentlemen has attributed this part of the decline in the press to the emergence of television. We are told that people today, the masses of our countrymen and countrywomen, obtain their main news from television and they look to the tabloid press, the popular press, for entertainment. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that news in the old fashioned sense is not readily available in the tabloid press. You find news in the sense of happenings or alleged happenings but the main news of the day is certainly lacking and lacking most of all from the front pages.

In a speech of reasonable length starting quite late in the day I cannot hope to satisfy everybody by producing a few typical examples but I must do my best. First, I am going to mention some examples of the tabloid performance which are not extreme and then I shall go on to a few worse ones. Last Saturday week when I was sitting down in the peace of the countryside to prepare this speech I found the main story on the front page of the Sun headed: BBC Man Cashes in on Stunt Death". I am not producing the worst examples but typical ones. Above it is a short paragraph with the heading: Rape Judge in New Shock". On the following day I bought the News of the World. The top story on the front page was headed: Shame of Pop Idol's Order—Get Rid of Our Baby. Pregnant Lover tells All", and so on. The main feature that day is something to which I do not wish to refer specifically for an obvious reason. It described a national hero as a "Naughty Knight" and provided a great many lurid details about this alleged Naughty Knight, and so on and so forth. Last Sunday the main front page story in the News of the World was nastier still. I hesitate to refer to it. I hesitate to spell out the story but again, for reasons that are obvious, one looks at it. Inside the paper there was a story which curiously enough was repudiated by all the candidates in the Greenwich by-election. It must be quite a feat to have united them in this act of collective denunciation.

The examples I have given could be multiplied many times over but much more extreme cases occur not infrequently. The tabloid newspapers as a whole showed extraordinary insensitivity, to use no harsh word, in dealing with the problems of Prince Edward and his career in the Royal Marines. As usual, the Sun went further than the rest in obtaining somehow or other—it is not for me to speculate on this—a letter written to the Commandant-General of the Royal Marines by Prince Philip. In that case the Sun was forced to apologise and to pay what I hope were substantial damages. I am told that they were not substantial by press standards, whatever that means, and I am sorry to hear it. Substantial damages were allegedly paid.

The House may be amused to know that the Sun was not in any way humiliated by this episode. It described with satisfaction the apology forced on it. This was the headline: Philip does a deal with the Sun.". That was the Sun's idea of summing up the episode. That is what we are talking about. Where the victim of such an assault is powerless or already highly unpopular (compared with the Royal Family who are beloved of us all) or where, for example, a prisoner is convicted of serious crime, the viciousness of these papers knows no bounds. I mention the Sun because it is the more extreme, but most of the other tabloids are almost as bad.

Not long ago the front page of the Sun depicted the agonised father of a murdered child brandishing a knife and saying that given the chance he would cut the killer to pieces. If that is not a direct incitement to murder, I do not know what is. It is clear encouragement to commit a serious crime. An organisation for which I have much regard called Women in Prison asked me to take up the matter with the Attorney-General. Let me say in passing that in view of his bad health we extend our respect and sympathy to him. He wrote a very considerate letter in reply, as he would, indicating that the picture was distasteful but that he had no power to intervene. He suggested that if anyone had the power it would be the police.

I hope that the editor of the Sun had an opportunity of listening to a short television talk on forgiveness, though he may of course have switched off when that topic came up. It was given by the principal Catholic chaplain to the prison service at about the same time. The prison chaplain told us that the exploitation of the cruel sufferings of the relatives of victims for commercial reasons, the keeping alive in their hearts of the natural bitterness, was a wrong-doing comparable with the original crimes.

I do not want to imply that the Sun is alone in these unsavoury developments. It is not the only paper which printed the picture I mentioned. It is generally said that the Sun took a new initiative in going down-market. I have not heard anybody during my recent researches dispute that. The Sun took a new initiative in going down-market and in varying degrees the other papers have followed suit. Please let me emphasise that I am not saying that the papers read by the mass of the public ought to transform themselves into the kind of papers that most of your Lordships would prefer to read. One dreadful paper, the name of which I do not want to advertise, has just appeared purporting to be connected with sport but not sport in the ordinary sense. I hope that your Lordships do not take that newspaper in the Library and that nothing I have said will interest or induce noble Lords to make that move. In recent years there has been this sharp and lamentable decline.

What is meant by saying that the tabloid press has gone down-market? The most charitable way of putting it would be to say that it has become less demanding, but that is putting it too kindly. I would say simply that in recent years the tabloid papers have become more sensational, more unfair, more careless of truth, more intrusive into private lives, more ready to persecute and stir up hatred and more inclined to lean in a pornographic direction. Sixteen years ago I was chairman of an inquiry into pornography. We interviewed the leaders of the main newspapers, including Mr. Murdoch, who was not then so famous or as powerful as he is now. On looking back to our report we seem to have let them off too lightly, but things were not as bad then as they have now become. In particular, since 1971 violence has escalated enormously. I take this opportunity of paying tribute to all that Mary Whitehouse has been doing in that field.

Someone may say, "Ah, but the public get the tabloid press they deserve". We must pause for a moment to ask ourselves whether we can accept that submission. It is said that the tabloid press merely reflects the sentiments of the public, or, as is sometimes said on their behalf, so many million readers cannot be wrong. No doubt there is a point to be carefully considered there. A paper which hopes to be widely read must maintain some kind of contact with its readership, but no one seriously doubts that the tabloid press and, for that matter, other newspapers, guide public opinion as well as reflect it. I think the House will accept that argument—that they guide public opinion as well as reflect it. No one doubts, and surely in an election year least of all the leaders of the great parties, that collectively the popular papers—in fact, all the papers—have a strong and positive influence. Therefore, one cannot excuse the tabloid press by saying, "well, that is just what the people have asked for". Today we are passing through a period of acute, indeed desperate, newspaper competition.

The trouble is that here, as elsewhere, bad money drives out good. Some years ago I attended a dinner—I do not know whether any noble Lords present tonight were there—of highly reputable persons, including some Members of this House. After dinner we were asked to tell anecdotes. All went well until a slightly inebriated gentleman—I shall not say whether he was a member of this House—told a dirty story. From that moment the tone sank lower and lower. Elderly gentlemen feverishly searched their memories to dredge up unpleasant yarns from their schooldays. I recognise that when one newspaper lowers its standards—as did the Sun in the first place—it is terribly difficult for the rest not to follow, as in their own way in varying degrees they have.

What, if anything, can be done? What governmental action can be recommended? It is often said that monopoly is the great enemy of press enlightenment. Certainly I am sorry that our press today is so largely controlled by a few enormously rich men. A moment ago I was stressing the dangers and horrors of desperate competition, and so I do not think that getting rid of monopoly goes to the root of the problem.

I speak carefully and without personal animosity towards Mr. Rupert Murdoch. He was charming to me on the only occasion that I met him. However, I do think it is wrong that so large a proportion of our leading newspapers should be owned and controlled by a gentleman who has renounced Australian citizenship—although he appears to be gaining a more powerful hold on their newspapers—in order to become an American. Therefore, Mr. Murdoch, this American gentleman, now controls a large part of our British newspaper world. I should like to see a law passed making it illegal for control of our newspapers to pass into foreign hands. I understand that the TUC agrees with me. Good luck to it; I can only assure the House that there has been no collusion. We arrived at that splendid conclusion independently. As the House may be aware, I speak as one who possesses an Irish passport. At least I possess a British passport too, which I suppose is not true of Mr. Murdoch.

I certainly hope that the laws against obscenity will be strengthened in the near future. I should like to see legal aid provided for libel cases. People often ask when something harmful is said about a completely powerless person why he or she does not bring an action. They do not have the money. Action is only available to those who have large resources. Therefore, that is a suggestion I should like to put forward, but I leave those issues for the moment.

Some of my intelligent friends would like me to press for stronger laws against interference in private life. I cannot imagine myself failing to support rational proposals of that kind. I am aware of some of the problems. If one remains in public life—speaking for most of us here—one is asking one's fellow men to judge one, warts and all. I do not think any public man can expect to lead a secret life of which he would be ashamed if it became public. It may well be that ordinary citizens ought to be protected while public figures run the gauntlet. Perhaps someone will come up with a suggestion on how that might be done, and I am sure I would support it; but for the moment I must leave that to others.

We could devote a whole debate—and perhaps we will on another occasion—to the work of the Press Council, which deserves far more attention than it has received. I was glad to read an article in the Observer last Sunday which was headed "Press Council bares its teeth at the pack". The following was the quotation from the Press Council: The Press Council, the newspaper industry's 'toothless' watchdog, barked last week. And Fleet Street's finest jumped. A bitter complaint by Mrs. Frances Waite, wife of Mr. Terry Waite, about reporters and photographers besieging the family home, was relayed to editors by the Press Council and led to their withdrawal".

A number of facts have come out recently about the Press Council. The article stated: The Press Council received 1,136 complaints last year, but the vast majority were disposed of without having to go to final judgment by the Council".

It added that the council, half its membership drawn from the industry and the other half members of the public, considered 118 cases, of which it upheld 57 and rejected 61. Of the 70 cases against national newspapers, exactly half were upheld".

I may not have been very charitable towards the Sun. In fairness, I should point out that the Daily Express had six complaints upheld against it while only five were upheld against the Sun. The quality papers did not come out much better than the tabloids. Only the Financial Times, the Morning Star, the Guardian and the Independent—only recently launched—came through the year with a clean sheet.

As your Lordships may know, the National Union of Journalists refuses to participate in the work of the Press Council. It considers the council to be too much under management control. I will not go into that controversy now. I am delighted that the National Union of Journalists has set up its own Ethics Council. Anyone who considers that a journalist has breached the code of conduct obligatory on all members of the NUJ can take up the complaint with the Ethics Council. Already some good results are accruing. From my own experience—rather an acute experience—the nastiest pieces of journalism are unsigned, or, if they are signed, the journalist can point out that his piece was distorted by higher authority.

There is the everlasting issue of the malevolent headline. On many occasions, it is hard to find the culprit. Not long ago a reporter from the Sun rang me up. I do not have an obsession about the Sun, but if one goes into this question one finds oneself increasingly turning to it for the more striking illustrations. I said, "I suppose you want to talk about Myra Hindley". Your Lordships may wonder why I asked that question, but my experience over a good many years has produced that reaction. I said, "You know I don't talk to the Sun about her." The reporter said "Oh, but it is good news this time. We have just heard that she has run six miles for charity". That was at a time when many prisoners were raising money in that way for Sport Aid. I said, "I am sure the Sun will distort whatever I say", but he promised to print what I said exactly as I said it.

The reporter more than kept his word. He produced a very nice piece with favourable comments not only from me but from others. But, sure enough, the paper did the dirty. When the piece appeared, it was headed "Fiend Myra Runs for Famine Children". The Sun newspaper is what you might call a paradigm of the tabloid press. It would indeed be difficult to identify the culprit or culprits involved. But those who know Fleet Street could tell me on whom to place the blame.

I understand from the National Union of Journalists that the corect procedure in such cases is to take up the matter with the Father of the Chapel. If he is convinced, he will bring pressure to bear on the journalists concerned and, indeed, on the editor. But the editor is not likely to be a member of the National Union of Journalists. So it is not quite clear how strong this pressure can be. Behind the editor lurks the proprietor, whether in England or America, or moving about. We can only guess how that would operate in practice. Nevertheless, a start has been made with the Ethics Council of the NUJ. I wish everything good to it, as well as to the Press Council.

I must conclude. I will state my main proposal in the simplest possible way and then leave others, now and later, to work out the implications. There are many distinguished noble Lords to follow me, and in particular, I mention the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, who was chairman of the important Royal Commission 10 years ago. In view of the time, I must speak dogmatically, but I do not come to the House with a closed mind.

I am sure that what the press of today needs is an Ombudsman. This would not be a revolutionary development, but I am sure it would be the beginning of wisdom. If anybody points to the difficulties—there are difficulties in what I have suggested—the alternative is to do absolutely nothing. I come to this House imploring your Lordships to do something rather than nothing.

Starting from the assumption that what we need is an Ombudsman, I go on to submit that the Ombudsman should not be separate from the Press Council but should be integrated with it. I will not incriminate anybody, but I speak after discussions with at least one expert on the tabloid press.

I conclude that the chairman of the Press Council should be appointed by the Government and should play the part of Ombudsman, authorised by the Press Council. The precise powers which he should possess must be worked out carefully. As I have said, this is just the beginning of the discussion, an adumbration of the way forward. Certainly, the Ombudsman should be given power on behalf of the council to make its findings effective in a way in which they are not effective at the present time. No one could pretend that they are effective at present.

While I was preparing this speech about a week ago, the Press Council was blatantly defied, insultingly defied, by one of the tabloids. To say the least, that should be made unprofitable in the future, whether by fines or other means. It is all important that the chairman should be regarded as a non-political figure. It may be—others may have a better idea—that the appointment should be made after consultation with a small committee of Privy Counsellors. In a free society such as ours the popular press will never be entirely attuned to the taste of the House of Lords or to that of the House of Commons. But at least the press can be made accountable to Parliament in a way which does not occur at present.

In all that I have said tonight, I am expressing the hope that the Government, represented by the noble Baroness (whom I regard as a stern moralist in her better moments) will recognise a moral responsibility which can never be made absolute but can never be altogether repudiated.

8.38 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Earl not only for making an occasion to debate an issue of fundamental importance in a democracy but for introducing the subject in so moderate and open-minded a way.

The noble Earl very kindly told me in advance that his conclusions would be for an ombudsman to be made an integral part of the Press Council and for its chairman to be appointed by the Government after consultation with a small committee of Privy Counsellors. He believes that the tabloid press has deteriorated and continues to deteriorate. Clearly he uses the word "tabloid" to refer not to the size of newspapers. If that were so some such tabloids could not possibly fall under his criticisms. What he was discussing were three national dailies, with a circulation of some 8½ million copies, and three Sunday papers producing almost 11 million copies. That may be compared with the co-called quality papers which in their daily and Sunday forms sell in total roughly one quarter of those numbers.

The noble Earl cited those who say "The public get the tabloid press they deserve". He went on to say: the tabloid press merely reflects the sentiments of the public, or, as is sometimes said on their behalf, so many million readers cannot be wrong … No doubt there is a point to be considered there".

The Earl of Longford

I am not quite sure that the noble Lord interpreted my meaning correctly. I was not bringing that statement forward as an argument; I was rejecting it.

Lord McGregor of Durris

Yes, my Lords, I understood that the noble Earl was rejecting it, but I think that on that point there are two comments that need to be made in order to understand the present position of the tabloids. First, the Sunday tabloid press goes back at least as far as the Observer, which was founded in 1791 and which was one of the earliest papers to use long reports of sexual crimes and murders. It was followed by the Sunday Times, the People's Police Gazette and others. All these papers specialised in sport, scandal, sex and crime. The noble Earl cited the main headline in a recent issue of the News of the World. In the very first issue of that paper in 1843 the main headline was: Extraordinary Charge of Drugging and Violation". The story was of a young woman "violated with great violence".

Many of the papers that were launched after the repeal of stamp duty in 1855 provided a nutritious diet for mid and late Victorian pornophiles which they drew from reports of the proceedings of the new divorce court. It is to be noted that complaints were made in each decade throughout the whole of this period about the deteriorating standards of the press. I do not know how to measure them or to judge them. The noble Earl may well be correct that in the last decade there has been a visible deterioration.

Of course what happened in the past does not provide any justification for what is printed today, but it tells of a long British tradition of public demand for the type of material that is frequently purveyed in the tabloids. I think that the noble Earl exaggerated the influence of the press in shaping public opinion. Indeed, if in the past the press had shaped public opinion, the political party of which he is so distinguished a member would never have been in office. I doubt whether the public get the tabloids that they deserve, even if I were capable of defining in that context "desert".

I think it may be said that over the past two centuries the public has obtained what it has wanted and been willing to pay for. The public has obtained it through the operation of a free market for newspapers, the contents of which were fashioned within the law to meet tastes of which doubtless many of us do not approve. But from one point of view in free societies newspapers are businesses like any others. From the point of view of free expression in a democracy they are businesses like no others. I think that it is this situation which causes many of the difficulties that arise when dealing with the press.

It is precisely because of the role of the press in a democracy in providing information about government and criticism of them that the electorate is enabled to make informed choices. It is this fundamental function that we have to consider when we talk about regulation or imposing some form of control over the content of newspapers. At that level the press is indivisible; one cannot control its moral content without establishing a machinery by which government could control its political content.

That is why voluntary, self-regulatory press councils have spread throughout almost the whole of the democratic world. I think that Portugal is the only country in the EC—with the exception of Sweden, where the circumstances are wholly different—and it is certainly the only country in the Council of Europe, which has a statutory press council. The norm is a voluntary, regulatory institution precisely because all democratic countries have recognised the sinister dangers of establishing a machinery through which government can directly intervene in the press. This is the situation, given the two sources of information on which the public relies: broadcasting and the printed press. In different ways broadcasting has always been under the indirect control of governments and consequently the necessity for maintaining a press that is entirely free from government has been a major concern in all democracies.

When the right of reply was debated in another place early in 1983 the Government said very firmly and emphatically that they had no mind to establish a statutory press council in any way to control the content of the press. When my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich drew attention to the report of the Press Council on the Sutcliffe case in July 1983 the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said: 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".—[Official Report, 20/7/1983; col. 1190.] I was astonished by the deafening silence with which what I regard as a dramatic statement of government policy was greeted by the press. I hope that when the noble Baroness replies she will be able to tell us something about the Government's present view on that issue and whether what was stated in July 1983 remains the Government's position.

The issue which the noble Earl has raised is critical for a democratic society because it involves freedom of political expression in all societies in which relations between the press and politicians are bad. The noble Lord, Lord Jacobson, who was a most distinguished editor, once said that relations between politicians and the press had deteriorated, were deteriorating and ought in no circumstances to be improved; that is the proper relationship between the press and politicians in a democratic society. It is for that reason that the possibility of direct governmental intervention in the press raises so many horrible prospects, no matter whether one raises it in terms of improving the moral condition of the press or changing its attitude to political reporting.

The noble Earl's conclusions were to appoint an ombudsman to the Press Council and for the Government to appoint the chairman of the Press Council, possibly with the assistance of a committee of Privy Counsellors. My difficulty over that proposal arises when I look at the list of chairmen of the Press Council. We begin with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Devlin. We proceed to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Pearce; then to the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross; then to Sir Patrick Neill and now we have Sir Zelman Cowan. The Press Council, for reasons with which I do not agree, always appoints a lawyer as its chairman.

Lord Mishcon

Hear, hear!

Lord McGregor of Durris

I ask the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, whether any government, committee of Privy Counsellors or anybody else could have produced a more distinguished list than that.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, in case it has been lost sight of by the noble Lord, I say that the ombudsman would have more power than any of those eminent gentlemen. He would not be in the same position.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, it is difficult to judge unless we know what the range of powers of the ombudsman will be; but that is not essential to the further comment that I wish to make.

I feel that the noble Earl's approach should be extended to embrace the proprietors of the press, because they are in the best position to give instructions to their editors about the moral condition of their newspapers and to obey the Press Council's rulings and guidelines. The proprietors are in the best position to turn the Press Council into an adequately financed and respected self-regulatory institution.

The only hope that I see for the Press Council is for the proprietors to enter into a public commitment and make a public announcement of their support for it and their willingness to observe its independent rulings and guidance. Only in that way will the council be able to move from its present position in which it has had a considerable but underestimated influence upon the press but in which it has been defeated on a number of crucial occasions by a tiny handful of delinquent proprietors. Until a method is designed to bring the delinquent proprietors into the large grouping of excellent proprietors who are responsible for running some exceedingly good newspapers, we shall not be able to free ourselves from the not unreasonable threat that the public, as the noble Earl said, will not stand for ever some of the behaviour of the more irresponsible of the tabloids.

I therefore hope that the proprietors of the press, some of whom are Members. of your Lordships' House, and none of whom I have ever seen in a debate on the press in this House, will take warning from the Motion that we have been debating. I hope that the Government will feel able in relation to the Press Council, as governments have done in the past, quietly to twist the arms of the proprietors. I wonder whether the noble Baroness is willing to take that suggestion on board.

8.58 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, I am happy to support the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in this debate, not least because he supported me so gallantly when I moved my amendment to the Education Bill, as it then was, last June. Some of your Lordships may remember that the essence of that amendment, which was finally accepted by the Government though in a somewhat emasculated form, was that where sex education was given in schools it should have due respect for moral values and for the promotion of stable family life.

As I think most of us here will agree, the tabloid press is one of the elements in our society which, taken together with television and the cinema, is steadily and inexorably eating away at family life. I feel sure that the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, will support me here because I know only too well his interest in the promotion of family courts. There seems to be a growing awareness of the value of the family. That is reflected in the activities of bodies such as the National Campaign for the Family, Family and Youth Concern, and several others with which I am associated and which attract increasing support.

Why is it that such people consider the family to be valuable? Is it not because, inter alia, families are the seedbeds where children are, or should be, nurtured and developed; where the basic human qualities of commitment, compassion and caring can best be fostered? In this context this evening I wish to consider the harmful impact of the teenage glossy magazines on the young. I take it that they come within the scope of the tabloid press, and the noble Earl has assured me that they do.

Some of your Lordships may have seen some of these magazines on sale at bookshops, or even in your children's bedrooms. I know several people who have done so. Many of these glossy tabloids which are directed at teenagers seem harmless enough on the surface; the real poison lies within. Perhaps I may examine briefly some of these publications, and in doing so I am indebted to a booklet entitled The Seductive Sell produced by Family and Youth Concern, formerly the Responsible Society, from which much of my information is drawn.

Probably the most harmful of these teenage tabloids, which are particuarly devoted to young girls, are: Loving, published by IPC; Just 17, published by EMAP Publications; Look Now, published by Carlton Magazines; Honey, published by IPC; 19, also published by IPC; and Jackie, published by Thomson Press. I shall not go into details about these magazines but I think that it is appropriate to say that the magazine with the highest circulation is Jackie, which has a circulation of 328,886. The others which I enumerated have circulations of between 100,000 and 200,000.

What are the main themes running through those magazines? They seem to me to be the assumption that premarital sex, even if the participants are below the legal age, is normal, natural and right; that contraception is an absolute must; the promotion of abortion without discussing the serious moral implications of destroying life in the womb; a bizarre fascination with witchcraft and the occult; and the promotion of the idea that homosexual relations are just as acceptable as heterosexual relations. The main offender here seems to be New Musical Express which is probably the most widely read of the various pop magazines. However, as it is not strictly a tabloid publication, I did not include it in my list.

To judge from the letters which I continue to receive, there can be no doubt that many parents are deeply concerned about the trend of these magazines, as they are about the general permissive and amoral tone of much of the sex education given in our maintained schools. The subject that seems to disturb these parents most is the promotion of homosexuality; and rightly so, because this is surely the principal factor undermining family life. Here I should like to pay tribute to the recent Bill of my noble friend Lord Halsbury—the Local Government Act 1986 (Amendment) Bill—banning the promotion by local authorities of homosexual acts.

I conclude by asking the noble Baroness the Minister whether she would agree that these magazines have a harmful and unsettling effect on young people, contributing to their lives a tastelessness, vulgarity and moral emptiness, quite apart from their serious sexual innuendos. If so, perhaps I may ask the noble Baroness whether anything can be done within the framework of the law to eliminate at least the most explicit and offensive passages. Will the Minister also agree that the editors of these magazines must be made aware of their responsibilities towards young people and be encouraged to produce material which will inform and benefit their readership by offering them a more attractive and hopeful set of values and aspirations, ideally based on Christian teaching? So far as I am aware, there is no evidence to show that youngsters would reject such material. Surely, even from the commercial point of view, this is worth a try.

9.5 p.m.

Lord Kagan

My Lords, we are all indebted to my noble friend Lord Longford for tabling his Unstarred Question. When he asked me whether or not I would support him I readily agreed. I do not want to take up your Lordships' time at this late hour by repeating what has already very ably been said.

As one who has experienced some of the abuses of the press, I know how painful it can be. It is rather astonishing that we protect trespass on property to an extraordinary extent while we do not protect trespass on a person, on reputation and on privacy. Perhaps other speakers can deal with that matter much better than I can.

After listening to all the speeches, it seems that, as so often in politics and in life, we do not have the choice between a good or a bad solution, but rather between bad, terrible or worse, and we can take our pick. I agree that in those countries where the press is controlled that situtation has led to disaster. We must be careful that the very narrow line between the right to know and the right to pry, and the very narrow line between freedom and licence, is not passed too carelessly.

9.8 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I have not the slightest idea whether or not Her Majesty's Government are satisfied with the moral condition of the tabloid press. I can say for my own part that following the permissive 'sixties I am totally dissatisfied with the moral condition of almost everything. This starts in high circles with governments and civil servants who leak like sieves to the press whenever the interests of the power struggle require it. The duties of fidelity are totally breached and nobody tells the truth unless it pays.

If I may generalise on the matters raised by the noble Earl, I regard the media at large as simply brokers or merchants who buy and distribute entertainment and sell advertising space. I do not see any difference between them and the baker who buys flour and sells bread. The mere fact that it is saleable says nothing whatsoever about the moral chacacter of the customer. She may be a prostitute; he may be a priest. It is the same bread for both.

The idea that the customer cannot be wrong is a totally ambiguous proposition. Does it mean the customer knows what he wants? In that sense, yes of course he knows what he wants, but is it morally good for him to want what he wants, which is altogether another matter? The mere statement that the customer is always right is totally ambiguous. Every human quality can be a good or a bad quality. As the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, believe, we are in some sense a fallen species. Every one of our instincts can be natural or depraved. There is the natural curiosity—the curiosity of any animal to wonder what is round the corner. There can be depraved curiosity. There can be an interaction with positive feedback between a depraved press and a depraved public so that each one renders the other a little worse in the course of time, which is what has been happening.

Last night I went to see an exhibition held by Mrs. Mary Whitehouse in Room W1, of four or five shows on Channel 4 on the red triangle scheme. Through a boring hour and a half I sat and looked at them. There was bad photography, bad sequencing, bad integration, and the whole thing was almost totally incomprehensible. Yet according to the audience ratings there had been millions of people looking at the shows. All that means is that millions of television sets were switched on, but whether or not the sound had been switched off because it was so boring, using one of those gadgets which can control the set across the room, one has no idea whatsoever. One of the comments made was that anybody who relied on such shows would go bankrupt very soon because it was such absolute rubbish.

If I may revert to my original thesis that the media are brokers who exchange entertainment on the one hand for advertising revenue on the other, the simplest example is independent television—commercial television. The whole operation is paid for by advertising revenue. The customer gets it absolutely free except for the payment of a licence fee for his set, which goes to the BBC. The BBC does not advertise but has to compete with those who do. The BBC will not get an increased licence fee unless its audience ratings are at least as good as those of the IBA or ITV. As generators on a transmission line they pull one another into phase and when it comes to depravity it is very difficult to know whether the BBC or ITV are following or leading one another. The whole system is slowly going downhill.

I think it was Gibbon who analysed the Roman Empire as coming to pieces because of free bread and free circuses which nobody had earned. Our own culture seems to be following in the same way with free welfare and free entertainment. We need to make a real moral effort to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and get on to a higher level altogether. It is not possible to improve the moral tone of society by legislation. There is only one way to improve other people's behaviour and that is by improving your own.

It is written: So let your light shine before men that they may see your good works". I believe that it is in the good behaviour of the few that the torch can be lit and spread and catch fire among the many, so that we reconstitute the morals of society.

9.13 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, as others who have spoken I am enormously grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for having provided the opportunity to have this debate. I should like first of all to congratulate him very much on the amount he managed to pack into what he had to say. It was of a very high value and I am sure that when we read it in the Official Report tomorrow we shall all appreciate it very much more.

I want to use this debate as an opportunity to bring to the attention of the House a number of illustrations of what I consider to have been quite disgraceful distortions which have paraded in the tabloid press under the general guise of alerting ratepayers in London boroughs to the misbehaviour and misdemeanours of their authorities. There has been in my view a sustained attack by segments of the tabloid press, particularly on London Labour authorities, over the past few years.

I do this wearing my hat as the president of the Association of London Authorities. What I want to do is to invite the House to listen to a number of the illustrations which I want to give, and then to the official comment by the Association of London Authorities, and to invite those newspapers or journalists whom I shall name in these extracts to consider whether they have the moral obligation to take the matter up with the councils and with the ALA.

A large headline, "RACE SPIES SHOCK", appeared in the Mail on Sunday. This was the story: RACE commissars in a Left-wing borough are recruiting 180 Thought Police to patrol schools for prejudice. And they will be paid out of a £5 million Government grant intended to promote racial harmony. But teachers in the London borough of Brent—who say they already work in a climate of fear—believe the classroom spies will cause lasting damage in the drive for equality and will lower education standards even further". The decision to employ race relations advisers in Brent schools was agreed by all political parties on the council, which was then controlled by the Conservatives, and they took the decision to comply with a Home Office directive. When we debated education three weeks ago I challenged the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who was forthcoming in her condemnation of many of the things she was entitled to criticise, to be as forthcoming over the disgraceful treatment of this issue, but we got no reply.

Here is another headline:

"RHYME WITHOUT REASON … NOW LOONY LEFT REWRITES CHILDREN'S NURSERY FAVOURITE. Baa, Baa, green (YES, GREEN) sheep! BAA, BAA black sheep—one of the oldest children's nursery rhymes—has been banned by a Left-wing council as 'racist'. Playgroup leaders have been told that in future children should sing 'green' sheep instead. That was in the Daily Mail. The authority referred to was Haringey, and the item is sheer invention. Lambeth's tropical meals-on-wheels. A bizarre policy which would let homosexuals jump the housing queue and provide Afro-Caribbean meals-on-wheels has been adopted by a council". That appeared in the Daily Mail. Not true. No. Gay people get no special treatment when housing is allocated. Lambeth provides a wide range of menus as part of its meals-on-wheels service—everything from roast beef to curry.

In the Daily Express: Loony Left in Wendy House row. The loony lefties have struck again—this time at that children's playtime favourite, the Wendy House. Labour-controlled Ealing Council in West London reckons this top toy should now be referred to in schools as the 'home corner'. That matter had never been discussed in any council committee. The racist bin liner is blacked The Mail on Sunday. BLACK dustbin liners have been banned at Bernie Grant's Left-wing Haringey Council because they are 'racially offensive'. The Leader of the House in entitled to chortle at the nonsense of that remark, but it was printed in the Mail on Sunday and no doubt read by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people, and it was just not true.

Again in the Daily Mail:

"STAFF HAVE TO ASK FOR COFFEE WITHOUT MILK? NOT BLACK! Left-wing fanaticism already meant councillors and staff had to talk about coffee without milk instead of black coffee. A pure fabrication.

"WIDOW TWANKY IS BLACK FOR SHOW, By Denis Budge. A LOONY Left-wing council's Christmas panto will have a BLACK widow twanky. Labour-controlled led Camden Council in North London say the show must have no 'anti-racist or anti-sexist' jokes". That was in the Sun. The local theatre, the Shaw Theatre, decided the panto's cast. The council had nothing to do with it. Why should not a pantomime dame be black anyway?

Then there was the classic, also in the Sun. A headline:

"HOW MANHOLE IS A DIRTY WORD! A LOONY Left-wing council has ordered sewerage workers to ban the word MANHOLE because it is sexist and use ACCESS CHAMBER in its place. A spokesman for Hackney council, East London, said yesterday: 'The word manhole is an insult to women'. It is a total invention. There is not a word of truth in it, including the quotation.

The last quotation I need to use is from the Mail on Sunday again. The headline is: The mad mad mad mad world of Islington OFFICIALS who find the mad, mad, mad world of Islington Council hard to take have long since gone to be replaced by a more malleable breed. Senior officers are subject to 'loyalty classification'—and are categorised into those willing to put into operation the 'progressive policies' those who do so grudgingly but have mortgages to pay and those who are hostile". Complete rubbish. There is not, nor has there ever been, a "loyalty" classification for council officers.

There are many other examples. I invite the newspapers I have named or any others to contact the Association of London Authorities, where there are more examples than I have quoted to illustrate the damaging, dangerous trend which has occurred in the last few years and which is certainly related to the number of gains for Labour and control of London authorities by Labour over the last few years. I not only believe it is the responsibility of my noble friend Lord Longford, who has made some valuable suggestion, but it is something that the Government should not easily slough off by saying that they must uphold the freedom of the press and cannot interfere because these people are entitled to their views, they have thick skins and know what to do.

In my view the Government have a responsibility in these matters and I very much hope that instead of making a 10 or 15 minute speech in reply, the Minister will have something positive to say about what the Government think of the illustrations I have given and what they intend to do about the problem.

9.22 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, I must first apologise to your Lordships for intervening late in the debate. I had intended to put my name down, but I was not certain whether I would be able to be in my place at this hour. The fact that I am speaking from these Benches does not commit the Government or any other Members of the House to any views that I might express, except to say that we are all very much obliged to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for enabling this matter to be discussed. He has been a Member of your Lordships' House for many years and has initiated a number of important debates. Whether they command the support of all your Lordships is a completely different matter, but he has enabled subjects of this kind to be ventilated. He has made his points very lucidly and we are grateful to him.

This issue could have been debated over a period of several centuries. Have governments of any party ever been satisfied with the moral condition of the tabloid press? I rather doubt it. I have looked up a definition of the word "moral". It means ethical character or conduct, good or evil. I wonder whether the tabloid press of 1987 is any less moral in many ways than the tabloid press of 1947, just to quote a year.

I am an avid reader of newspapers, not only those in London but regional newspapers. When overseas I always enjoy reading the newspapers thereof. If they are in a language I do not understand I sometimes get people to translate them for me, because the tabloid press does serve a number of readers. Figures have been quoted. Reference has been made to one or two newspapers, notably the Sun. I suppose one has to mention a certain page in that newspaper where there are certain photographs each day. I would make only one observation about those photographs, because some people do complain that they are disgusting and offensive to women. To some minds, they are. What I find especially nauseating about these photographs, and not only in this particular newspaper, are the captions. They are so ingenuous and so banal that one really wonders why people look at them at all.

The Press Council has been referred to and, as one who has no financial interest in any newspaper at all, I would just make this point. I believe that the Press Council must be completely separate from government. I believe that in this country we have a very good Press Council. I can perhaps comment on the observations made by the noble Lord, Lord Graham. I am not in a position to comment upon whether these facts are right. However, I would have thought that if they are as wrong and as inaccurate as has been stated, there are legal proceedings which can be taken. And if they are entirely wrong or mischievously wrong, then legal action should be taken.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, would the noble Lord give way? Does he not understand that if there is a constant tirade of distortion, one decides from time to time to go to the expense and trouble of making reports, and so on? But, in the main, most people simply say, "I hope people will not accept the nonsense of what is being said."

Lord Auckland

My Lords, I take completely the noble Lord's point. But, again, these distortions are nothing new. My mind goes back, if we are taking this argument (which I think is not absolutely germane to the debate) to 1945 and some of the comments that were made against Mr. Churchill in those days—the "warmongering" scare and similar things—which at the time were offensive.

As history goes on, present generations forget these things. I am not defending any inaccuracy against any council or any person and I believe that the full weight of the law, if any kind of libel or anything like that is near, should come down on them. This debate, as I understand it, is concerned more with the offensive aspects of certain tabloid newspapers in regard to human decency and morals rather than what is actually said by politicians.

I would just make the point that these problems will never be solved so long as we have a free press, free media and a free Press Council, which one hopes that we will have. The alternative, which none of us would want, is something like Rudé Provo. I was in Czechoslovakia a few years ago and I have in fact glanced at that newspaper. I do not think any of us would want that. However, I do think that so long as we have a free press—tabloid or otherwise—obviously there must be some concern about human decency.

However, this does not mean to say that there are not occasions when the Press Council should not investigate. Certainly, it should. With all the shortcomings of our press in this country, tabloid and otherwise, compared to many parts of the world we have a very high standard. I am not saying that we should be complacent about this, but we must get things into proper proportion.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, it is common knowledge that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is imprinted on our hearts in a very affectionate and respectful way, largely because he has carried a banner for many years in this House for his principles, which he holds most sincerely. Sometimes the banner is tattered as a result of the shots that are fired at it, whether through the press or otherwise, but he marches bravely on and all of us hope that he will continue to do so in this House for many years. It is in that spirit, I am sure, that we have listened to the debate on his Question following upon his own, if I may say so, very warm and sincere speech.

We are expressing personal opinions tonight. So far as I know, there is no party policy in regard to the tabloid press. If there were it would be rather amusing but a little menacing, because the first point that I want to make—and it has been emphasised in this debate—is that it would be a fatal day for this country if ever a government sought to impose upon our free press what they should or should not say in regard to political matters.

It may be a matter of regret that a very large section of the press seems, from my party's point of view, to have a very prejudiced and jaundiced view, as my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton has tried to express. But the last thing in the world that would ever be mooted from these Benches, with our fervent belief in democracy, is that even a Labour Government should ever be able to say to the press, "You may print this about certain political matters. You may criticise politics in a certain way, but not in any other way".

But having excluded the political field from one of censorship, which we would all do, is there not a case for saying, as has been said in this debate, that when matters of taste come into question, when invasion of privacy comes into question, when cheque journalism comes into question, there ought to be a very definite way of the press being made to realise that their responsibility is not merely to print what may be adjudicated by the Press Council, but to see to it that that adjudication means that there will be an expression of regret by the newspaper concerned; that the adjudication of the Press Council shall be printed in a place and in a form and with a prominence that the Press Council has previously agreed; and that there will be an undertaking not to repeat the offence which the Press Council—their own voluntary organisation, if I may put it in that way—has imposed? That, I think, is what we are really debating tonight.

I do not think the tabloid press is alone, if I may say so, in doing rather extraordinary things from the point of view of what my noble friend Lord Longford would describe as moral issues. One remembers the recent trial of Mrs. Cynthia Payne, known, I believe, as "Madam Cyn". I recently opened The Times, a newspaper for which when I was a young man I had the greatest respect. I have tried to retain that respect over the years and sometimes I have found it difficult. However, to my utter amazement, when I opened The Times (of all papers) on Thursday, 12th February last, I found the headline: Laughter in court during the trial that has brightened a dark English winter", and underneath that the headline: Frolic and a smile as chirpy Madam Cyn goes home to No 32". My noble friend Lord Longford apologised for being unkind to the Sun. But the sun almost appears to have set when one sees a headline like that in our respected newspaper, The Times.

I thought that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, was most interesting in his observations. Is it really the fact that standards have dropped in many places in our national life? That thought was not echoed by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, as he took us back to the last century and gave us examples of similar incidents in newspapers to those which we are now debating. I wonder whether it is right to say that there has been a deterioration. I wonder whether no control at all or, on the other hand, control of a kind which I shall venture to suggest to your Lordships, is called for.

I know the Lord Chamberlain is no longer there, and perhaps I shall be thought a prude. But in our theatres, which are open to the young and to everyone, the modern playwright feels he has not written a modern work if a four letter word does not occur three or four times at the very least in any one scene. On the stage and in the cinema nothing is left to the imagination or the intelligence of the audience, so they must see the whole of a sexual act carried out in the course of a film in every detail. I regard that as an insult to the audience, which is supposed to have some sort of imagination.

Newspapers are trying to improve their circulation and it is not a very good comment on our times that apparently circulation is improved by certain papers when they include page 3 or whatever it may be. What I wish to suggest, if I may, is this. Following on the interesting speech of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, he said that the suggestions he made were made 15 years ago for the first time when the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross, was chairman of the Press Council. They were made then and they were repeated in debate, as he rightly said when he recalled our recollection to when we debated a serious matter of cheque journalism in the Sutcliffe case. If I remember correctly, that followed upon two incidents in the Moors case in which my noble and learned friend Lord Elwyn-Jones, who was at that time Attorney-General and prosecuting the case, had pertinent observations to make as to the behaviour of the press.

In regard to those matters, the Press Council, which I believe is now over 30 years old, was set up only because otherwise there might have been government sanction and government action. It has operated in terms of these matters without any teeth at all.

The noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, reminded us of the idea that newspaper proprietors ought to be brought into this. As I said, that idea was expressed many years ago by the Press Council and by the noble Lord, Lord Shawcross; namely, that they ought to enter into some sort of public contact with the newspaper proprietors and the Press Association so that they will recognise a code of conduct and abide by the decision of the Press Council relating to the code.

The fresh suggestion that I put—and it is purely a personal one—is this. Why should there not be a law that a national newspaper operates under a licence, the licence to be granted not upon any terms whatsoever in regard to political content or anything of that kind, but that the newspaper proprietor will get his licence on the basis that he undertakes to enter into that contract with the Press Council; namely, to abide by the guidelines on taste and matters of that kind set out by the Press Council and to obey whatever the council decides in regard to those matters. That is at least worthy of consideration by the Government, I should have thought. I merely ask the Minister to consider it. I repeat that it is purely a personal idea. Even though I am speaking from the Front Bench, I carry no weight at all in putting this forward.

I remember the debate of which the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, reminded us, I remember what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said from the Government Front Bench at that time. I am sure that the House will want to recollect those words even beyond the quotation that the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, gave us. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, speaking with all the authority that he had at that time—and, if I may say so, it is a great pleasure to see him in the House again, even if he does not have that same ministerial responsibilty—said on 20th July 1983 (at col. 1190 of the Official Report): 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 they could not be ovecome 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". Those were very strong words.

I repeat the hope that I expressed at the outset of the remarks that I have ventured to make to your Lordships. We would definitely fear the day—and I use those words expressly—if ever the Government tried to control the press of this country, but are we asking too much if we say that there should be a contractual series of guidelines entered into between national newspapers proprietors and the Press Council, so that the Press Council—that body which is independent of the Government and must always remain independent of the Government—has at last some dentures that bite?

9.45 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has with his usual vigour placed before the House his views on the state of the British press. The contributions of other noble Lords, and in particular those of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, show that he has raised a matter which excites genuine concern in this House. Your Lordships' remarks point to the particular value of this House that so much expertise is available when discussing a matter of this kind. I should like to join others in congratulating the noble Earl on initiating this debate.

It is an unusual pleasure for me, only a shade above 38–22–36, to emerge from the sheltered confines of the Elephant and Castle to reply on behalf of the Government to the noble Earl's question. Let me therefore examine with care the terms of this debate, which are: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the moral condition of the tabloid press". I could address my remarks along the lines suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Longford: that we should examine the question purely from the tabloid point of view. However, I do not think your Lordships' words or thoughts are confined to the size of a newspaper; so let me turn to the other part of the Question, which assumes that it is a proper function of the Government to be satisfied with the moral conditon of the press, or one part of the press; and there I part company with the noble Earl.

As one who speaks regularly for the Government in this House, I would be the first to recognise that Government Ministers are responsible for a very wide range of subjects. On these subjects we are available to your Lordships and to Members of another place to account for our policies and our actions, and to answer questions on them. But this does not mean that we are responsible for each and every activity which takes place in the United Kingdom, and unless there are laws charging Ministers with responsibilities the presumption is that they are not matters in which Parliament expects or wishes the Government to interfere.

So far as the press is concerned, this has been the state of affairs since 1695 when Parliament allowed the Licensing Act to lapse. There is, I believe, only one law currently on the statute book which applies specifically to the press. That is the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act 1881 which requires the proprietors of newspapers to register their names with the companies' registry. It confers no responsibilities upon government or the press other than this act of registration. Indeed—and like my noble friend Lord Auckland I turn back to history—the position was well summed up in a judgment by the Lord Chief Justice in 1900 when he said: The liberty of the press is no greater and no less than the liberty of every subject of the Queen". Although governments are not responsible for the activities of the press it would be a mistake to conclude that they have been complacent about the very important role which the press plays in the country. That is why on three occasions since the war—in 1947, in 1961 and in 1974—governments have established Royal Commissions on the press. There can be few subjects which have suffered such thorough examination. In each case this has been promoted by concerns about concentration of ownership and the closure of titles, a subject which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has himself mentioned this evening.

If the Government can take credit for one thing it is for the reversal of this trend which has rightly worried governments for 30 years. Do noble Lords on the Benches opposite seriously believe that three new newspapers—all designed to woo us away from our television sets—would have been estabished in the course of one year if the Government had not introduced their employment legislation? This is without artificial measures which single out the press industry for special control.

As for foreign ownership of the press, the 1977 Royal Commission looked at this question and pointed out that for many years some newspapers had been in foreign or Commonwalth hands and would have ceased to exist but for this fact. It is not just tabloid papers that are in foreign ownership and I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that a correlation can be made between foreign ownership and the quality of a newspaper.

All three Royal Commissions to which I have been referring have had some critical comments on the behaviour and content of the press. Of course, I am as one with some of the comments of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, and I think it is fair to say that we all, at some time or another, find certain reporting distasteful. Those who hunger for publicity have only themselves to blame when things turn out differently from what they would have wished. But at the same time I think we would all agree that certain individuals or groups can be extremely vulnerable to publicity and have no power to redress what can only be called the unfair and at times inhuman invasion of their privacy.

Were I speaking in a personal capacity I too could give examples. With a name like Trumpington, to be addressed as "Lady Trumpet" is the least of my worries. Perhaps I should think myself fortunate, in the wake of Madame Cyn's trial, that there isn't an "S" in front of my name. But, seriously, the impact of an inaccurate article or of a picture taken through a telephoto lens cannot be reversed by an apology at a later date.

I certainly hope that the views of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, which relate to what I have just said will be given serious attention outside this House. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, also referred to legal aid for libel complainants and I have noted his views. I shall see that his suggestion is passed on to my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor.

On the other hand, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that many a press crusade has righted a wrong, either for an individual or a public cause, and for this the press should be applauded. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, that the government's role should never be one of muzzling the press, tabloid or otherwise. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Auckland implied, without a free press no country is entitled to call itself a democracy.

The Press Council as it stands today resulted from the deliberations of the three Royal Commissions. I remind the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that it is nevertheless significant that all three Royal Commissions argued strongly against giving formal responsibilities to the government or to Parliament for the conduct of the press; and against other kinds of statutory controls such as a government appointed ombudsman, as proposed by the noble Earl.

The Press Councils' stated objectives are to maintain the character of the British press in accordance with the highest professional and commercial standards; to consider complaints about the conduct of the press; to deal with these complaints and to record the resultant action. As your Lordships know, the Press Council publishes annual reports which, for the most part comprise very detailed accounts of specific complaints received about the activities of individual newspapers and an explanation of the adjudication and subsequent action required by the Press Council. These adjudications have, over the years, developed into a valuable body of case law as to what is and is not acceptable in the practice of journalism. The noble Earl mentioned the NUJ and its ethical committee, and I agree with him that there is also a role for the unions to play

Some noble Lords will say that this is not enough: that we require some form of statutory body to ensure that the press is kept in order. The danger of such an approach do not need spelling out and I think it is significant that all three Royal Commissions since the war have explicitly rejected the notion of statutory powers in this area.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I intervene for one moment? My main point this evening is that things have been getting very much worse in recent years. To that extent the evidence of these post-war commissions is a little out of date.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, the last commission was in 1974, which is not so very long ago. I am not sure that I agree with the noble Earl that things have got much worse in the last 12 years. Two hundred years ago Lord Mansfield defined the liberty of the press as in being able, to print without any previous licence subject to the consequences of the law This was in the age of Hogarth, Pope and Swift—none of them great respecters of the sensibilities of their fellow citizens, either high or low. Lord Mansfield's statement holds good today. Like any citizen, newspapers are subject to the law of libel, to the Obscene Publications Act and to other statutes which propertly balance freedom of speech with the damage that might be caused to individuals, society, and the national interest by unrestrained publication. The press is neither freed from these obligations nor is it subject to more onerous ones. It operates squarely within the general law approved by Parliament and unless and until Parliament decides otherwise the press is responsible to the law of the land and not to the Government. It would surely be a dangerous path for the Government to assume responsibility for the national press. And if for the press, why not for local newspapers, magazines and books?

The noble Lord, Lord McGregor, and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, quoted from a statement which my noble friend Lord Elton made in July 1983. I can confirm as regards the statements made both in this House and in another place in 1983 that they continue to reflect government policy. We have no intention to introduce statutory oversight of the press and we do not believe that present circumstances justify our changing this policy.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I wonder if—

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, may I just finish? Of course, we would look again if there were genuine widespread public dissatisfaction.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I would hope that the noble Minister, with here usual courtesy and consideration, would deal with a different aspect from statutory control before she ends her speech—namely, the suggestion that was mede that there should be an enforced contract to observe guidelines with the voluntary body, the Press Association and the newspaper proprietors.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, my immediate reaction to that is that in some way it would be a muzzling of the press, to which I spoke earlier. However, I shall pass on the noble Lord's remarks to my right honourable friend.

If the noble Lords following this debate remain concerned about the activities of individual newspapers or of glossy magazines, I would encourage them to pursue their complaints through the offices of the proper regulatory body, the Press Council. I suggest that we are all opinion formers: the Churches, schools, parents and the community all have their part to play. I have no doubt that the Press Council will have followed this debate with interest as, I am sure, will the editors of some of the newspapers to which reference has been made today. It is the proper function of Parliament to express its views on matters of concern, whether through legislation or through a general debate of the kind that we have had this evening. The press will do well to heed some of the genuine anxieties that have been expressed by many of your Lordships.

Let me finish on a somewhat platitudinous note by taking up a rhetorical question that was asked by the noble Earl, Lord Longford. At the end of the day the choice of newspaper that we read is ours. Do we deserve the newspapers from which that choice is made or do we get the newspapers that we deserve?

House adjourned at one minute past ten o'clock.