HL Deb 13 January 1988 vol 491 cc1313-38

8.12 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now set up a Press Standards Council similar to the Broadcasting Standards Council recently announced by the Home Secretary.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, we have a small but very select list of speakers. I am sure that the other orators will join me in paying a tribute and saying how delighted we are that the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, is to follow me. I have done a little research and my own impression is verified. The noble Lord, Lord Deedes, is the only discoverable figure who has been a Cabinet Minister and the editor of a national morning daily newspaper. Someone, in a petty-fogging mood, might say "What about John Morley!" He was a Cabinet Minister and later of course a distinguished Member of this House; he wrote the Life of Gladstone in who knows how many volumes. But he was only editor of the Pall Mall Gazette which was after all an evening paper. So the claim of the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, remains unique. We all look forward very much to hearing from him.

The noble Lord, Lord McGregor, is recognised as an expert in this field having been chairman of the memorable Royal Commission. The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, is treasurer of the Christian Broadcasting Council. If my morals slip I know he will soon put me straight. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, was editor of the Manchester Evening News and the Daily Herald and for many years a leading figure in Fleet Street.

My noble friend Lord Mishcon has had a very high reputation in this House for a number of years as a man for all seasons, but always astute and always kindly. I think the House likes that combination particularly. Then we have the noble Earl, Lord Arran, whose father was so much more successful than I have ever been in looking after the underdog. I have never done as much for any underdog as his father did for the homosexuals and the badgers. He looked after the interests of both with equal distinction. I know he himself has followed the family tradition with much distinction in Fleet Street. We have a very strong team and the House will now allow me to offer a few thoughts.

In setting up a Broadcasting Standards Council Mr. Douglas Hurd has broken new ground. My submission tonight is that a similar body, which need not be precisely the same in range, is urgently needed for the press. In February of last year I introduced a Motion in which I insisted that the tabloid press had deteriorated and was continuing to deteriorate. I insisted that if possible that deterioration ought to be arrested. No-one at that time contradicted me. No-one in my presence or in writing has ever argued that I was wrong in saying that the standard of the tabloid press had deteriorated and was continuing to deteriorate. No-one disagreed with the proposition that steps ought to be taken, if one knew what they were to be, to arrest this decline. But there has been widespread disagreement. We may find ventilated tonight what steps should be taken to stop the decline.

I am not confining the debate to the tabloid press. I throw it open for anyone to discuss the question in any way he wishes. The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, on the earlier occasion, called attention to an amazing headline in The Times. Maybe all sorts of things will be extracted from the so-called "quality" press. I use that expression without sarcasm because, by and large, I respect that quality. My own primary concern, however, will be with the tabloid press. I leave the whole field open to others.

I am not going to repeat many of the things I said on the last occasion, because nothing is more tedious. I said then that the tabloid papers have become more sensational, more unfair, more careless of the truth, more intrusive into private lives, more ready to persecute and stir up hatred and more inclined to lean in a pornographic direction. My words seem to me even more true today.

In case anyone thinks I am being rather extreme, simply left-wing, or something dangerous of that sort, I shall now quote from a leading article in the Daily Telegraph on 22nd December, which made a wider criticism. Some phrases I could hardly bear to use myself. The article said: The popularity and credibility of the British press has never been at a lower ebb".

In what was quite a full leading article, the Daily Telegraph did not argue that the quality newspapers were perfect. But it did argue that the public judged the newspaper industry chiefly by its lowest common denominator—the tabloid press—adding: Many of its employees behave routinely in a fashion more appropriate to wild beasts than professional writers". These are not my distorted views; they are the views of the Daily Telegraph—the considered views of that great Conservative paper. The article went on: A significant portion of the tabloid press is wholeheartedly devoted to peddling fantasies, often malevolent ones". That is put it more forcefully than I could manage. But many of your Lordships will, I am sure agree, with the sentiment expressed by the Daily Telegraph.

I wish to be very objective, calm and collected here. I do not wish to imply that the tabloid newspapers which are, after all, read by such a high proportion of the population, are intrinsically evil. Every morning I visit my newsagent where I buy a quality newspaper in addition to those we receive at home. I shall not say which ones we receive at home and which ones I buy in the newsagents. My wife will not have one of the quality newspapers in the house so I have to get it at the newsagents. My eye ranges down the front pages of the tabloids. Sometimes I give way to temptation and actually buy one. I am not sure that that is an experience which all noble Lords have undergone, although I suppose that most occasionally look at them in this House. However, I am not sure that any noble Lord present buys many tabloid newspapers.

At the time of the King's Cross tragedy the estimates of the dead increased, as one moved along the line of newspapers, from 30 to 60 and there is certainly more drama as one proceeds downwards. However, I should like to say with emphasis that sometimes the front page is positively beneficent. I have criticised the Sun and I shall continue to do so. I suppose it is possible that the Sun will continue to criticise me. However, its front page was recently devoted to the rescue of a young woman who had been wrongly accused of assisting prisoners escaping from Gartree. That was a thoroughly humane front page and I only wish that there were more.

Since February there have been certain striking events in this area which I am sure have not escaped your Lordships' attention. There was the Jeffrey Archer libel case, which riveted the nation. In the end the jury, (rightly, I am sure, if I am allowed a view) came to the conclusion that a scandalous libel had been committed and it awarded Mr. Archer £500,000 in damages. The editor of the newspaper in question, the Star, refrained from entering the witness box. The poor man soon lost his job, which was hardly a coincidence. I hope that he has obtained other employment, because noble Lords will understand that I do not follow these people vindictively once they have fallen.

What followed was more extraordinary. One might have thought that the Star would have learned its lesson and decided to improve its moral tone. Quite the contrary: it established intimate links—a kind of amalgamation—with a paper which on the last occasion I said I hoped would not be taken in this House, and therefore I refrain from mentioning it this evening. It appointed as editor a gentleman from the unsavoury world of this unmentionable newspaper. In other words, it thought that it had not moved far enough down market. What followed was creditable to many people, including at least one member of your Lordships' House. Wisdom prevailed, no doubt sincerely on the broad level, but it seems to have been encouraged by the withdrawal of a considerable amount of advertising. That in itself was a tribute to the good sense of the readers. All good luck, therefore, to the Star for reacting swiftly to improve its moral quality.

The characters in that story are not done with yet. The News of the World came out of the Archer case even worse than did the Star, though more cheaply. In court the editor was revealed as being involved in a kind of plot to set up Mr. Archer. One might have thought that that editor's career would have suffered a temporary setback. Quite the contrary: soon after the trial, Mr. Murdoch acquired the Today newspaper, thus winning control of slightly more than one-third of the British national press. By his own choice he is in his latter days an American citizen. At this critical moment, who does he appoint to the key position of editor of the new paper? He appoints no less a controversial person than the same Mr. David Montgomery, editor of the News of the World, who cut such a sorry figure in the Archer case.

Mr. Murdoch's view of what he wants to see in his newspapers could hardly be more plain. I am aware that this House does not like personal attacks but when Mr. Murdoch controls more than one-third of our national newspapers it is impossible to ensure that one censures them without censuring him. I say deliberately that Mr. Murdoch is far more responsible for the present situation in the tabloid press—and therefore, to some extent, in the press as a whole—than all his editors and journalists put together. If I appear to have cast scorn upon Mr. Montgomery or anybody else as editor of a newspaper, one should point the finger much more decisively at the boss. If any noble Lord present is pleased with the present quality of the tabloid press—and the Sun has certainly led the move downwards—he will give credit and applause to Mr. Murdoch. If noble Lords consider that the present condition of the tabloid press is quiet deplorable, they will attribute to Mr. Murdoch a terrible responsibility. It is a consoling thought for Mr. Murdoch and for us all that tomorrow is another day, and that is the only consolation that I can derive from this situation.

I approach the other great panjandrum of the press, Mr. Robert Maxwell, with rather different feelings. I have met Mr. Murdoch only once and I found him to be charming. People always tell me that he is an engaging man as though it were a kind of justification for these newspaper atrocities. In so far as I have met him, I have found him to be charming. However, for many years I have regarded Mr. Maxwell as a friend. I hope that our friendship will survive these remarks and this evening. I like to think of Mr. Maxwell as a socialist; perhaps a funny kind of socialist but he may say the same about me and therefore we are all square in that respect. I try to give his newspapers the benefit of the doubt but lately, no doubt under the strain of the competition of the Sun and the News of the World, the Maxwell papers have also moved down market.

Someone was recently kind enough to apologise to me on behalf of the group for printing a ridiculous mistake about myself but they show no scruples whatever in their dealings with those less able to hit back. When they decide that someone, to use a phrase of their own, is "a vile person", they find it easy to believe every false rumour about that person and to persecute him, as do some other tabloids, with unrelenting cruelty and dishonesty.

But, it may be asked, why do not individuals who have been libelled in this way bring an action? Perhaps one day it will happen, but the story of the Archer case is not encouraging. In addition to the £500,000 in damages, we are told that, taking the two sides together, the costs amounted to over half a million pounds. From the outside it appeared to be touch and go to the end. The total figure of £1 million has only to be mentioned to explain why tabloid newspapers feel fairly safe in their policy of character assassination, therefore.

There is an overwhelming case for legal aid for libel complaints. I said that on the last occasion and the House was told that the Lord Chancellor of the day would look into the matter. We are now two Lord Chancellors further on, but I pay my tribute to those Lord Chancellors whom we have come to admire over the last year. I hope that the latest incumbent will look carefully into the matter.

I should like to say a few words about the treatment of the Royal Family by the press, particularly the tabloid press. I want to be fair: our Royal Family has never been as popular as it is today and those concerned with the media—newspapers and broadcasting—are entitled to take some share of the credit. But instance after instance occurs of absolutely outrageous treatment of the Royal Family by the tabloid press. I am sure that no noble Lord present and no one who reads these words will need me to tell them that. I shall mention only two instances, though I could point to unnumerable others.

I have a copy of the News of the World dated 12th July of last year. On the front page of that newspaper there is a photograph of Princess Diana and under it the heading "Diana on the Booze". The front page refers us to pages 16 and 17, where the matter is dealt with at great length. I will only mention the main headline, "Bubbly Diana hits the bottle". What follows is not fit for your Lordships' ears.

I expect that there are many Members of this House who know Princess Diana and her husband much better than I do, though I am sure none of them admires them more than I. At least I know them well enough to say at first hand that the whole of this article is a disgusting fabrication, and I am sure that the whole House will agree with me about that.

The last two issues of the News of the World have sunk to new depths. The House might not have thought that possible. They have sunk to new depths which anybody who consults the file in the Library will soon discover. I do not wish to publicise the contents tonight. It may be said 'Oh well, it's only the News of the World: that has always been a shocking paper". Some noble Lords will remember creeping out of their school to some forbidden newsagent to buy the News of the World. I cannot accept that as a defence.

It is not only the News of the World which behaves in this way towards the Royal Family. The House will be aware that on the Saturday before Christmas six popular papers published in advance a garbled version—I repeat, a garbled version—of the Queen's Christmas Day speech. If some of those newspapers dislike being put into the tabloid category, they earned the title on that occasion. No censorship can be too severe for this deliberate and flagrant breach not only of all traditions but of all principles of honour, decency and trust.

What recourse is left for the injured person or for the citizen who is disgusted by what he reads in a newspaper? I expressed my appreciation on the last occasion, and I repeat it now, of the establishment by the National Union of Journalists of its own Ethics Council. The problem, as I said then, is that an editor of a newspaper is not likely to be a member of the NUJ, and behind the editor lurks the proprietor. Nevertheless, once again I wish everything good to the Ethics Council of the NUJ.

That brings me to the Press Council. Nothing I say should be taken as an adverse comment on the work of the Press Council. I have a great respect and much sympathy for it as it labours under appalling difficulties. People may say: "Surely the Press Council is an adequate remedy." I can only ask them to take another look at the tabloid press and they will hardly arrive at an affirmative answer. It may indeed be asked, "What would we do without the Press Council?" Noble Lords will recall the dialogue in the Oscar Wilde play in which one character asks, "What would life be like without coffee?" and the other replies, "What is life like with coffee?" In other words, I cannot accept the complacent opinion that things are all right as they are.

In an impressive foreword to the latest report of the Press Council the chairman calls attention to the disgraceful, indeed insulting, flouting by the Sun newspaper of its finding on one particular occasion. It is impossible to believe that the Sun would adopt that attitude and flout the Press Council in that disgusting way without the actual approval of Mr. Murdoch, who, as I mentioned earlier, now controls slightly more than one-third of our national newspapers.

The chairman of the Press Council indicates in his report the likelihood that such behaviour will jeopardise the voluntary control of British newspapers. It will, he fears, lead to the establishment of some kind of compulsion which he would much regret. I do not see the dichotomy quite as plainly or sharply as that. I understand that the Home Secretary, Mr. Hurd, is setting up a statutory body which, in that sense, would have government authority behind it, but it would be entirely independent of government and newspapers alike. Its findings would be advisory but I entirely agree with the Home Secretary that they should carry much weight.

To summarise my argument, I am saying that what is sauce for broadcasting is sauce for newspapers. I shall be interested to hear in particular from the Minister what arguments, if any, apply in the one case and do not apply in the other. I have spoken for long enough. I have left many loose ends, the most obvious one perhaps being the relations between this new body and the Press Council; but after all Mr. Hurd has to work out the relations between his new body and the existing machinery for dealing with broadcasting complaints.

There is a desperate need to find a remedy for a crippling disease whose long-term effect can only be to corrupt our nation. I hope that what I have said tonight will help to contribute to the discussion and will be of assistance to all those engaged in this search for the right answer. I speak as one for whom reading newspapers remains one of the great pleasures of life and one who regards journalism, with all its human failings, as a thoroughly honourable profession.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Deedes

My Lords, I feel that a maiden speech about the national press by somebody who belongs to it needs an extra measure of the indulgence which I know your Lordships are always kind enough to grant on these occasions. However, I felt moved to join the debate which has been opened by the noble Earl because, like him and possibly from a different standpoint and a different angle, I share his misgivings and I am increasingly troubled by the standing of the national press. It is, to echo some words that he used, at a very low ebb—perhaps the lowest I have known in about half a century of journalism.

The noble Earl has given us his reasons for that. One does not agree with all of them, but some of them in my view are very difficult to contradict. What I want to dwell on, however, are not the reasons but the consequences of that state of affairs, of which sometimes, I believe, the press itself is hardly aware. There is no doubt in my mind that with the loss of popularity and credibility with the public there has also been a considerable loss of power for the press. Newspapers, or at least some of them, are inflicting on themselves a more humiliating penalty than the Press Standards Council which the noble Earl has just proposed, and for this reason.

They are no longer taken as seriously as they would wish. They are forfeiting their influence. They are in danger of losing any parliamentary democracy, their raison d'être, which is important. Profits for some newspapers may well be higher. We can rejoice at that. I hope that newspapers are going to enter, with new technology, a less anxious period than they have been through in the past 20 years. However, the extra profits have not all been won without some cost to the standing of the press as a whole.

Let me say at once, without controversy, that I have reservations about the noble Earl's Press Standards Council, but my reservations are unimportant. I will, however, make the noble Earl a present of this. Were the Government minded to establish such a council, or even something more severe, they would in my view have very little difficulty in doing so. There would be a cry from the press and at least two cheers from the general public. That is, to my mind, a very grave state of affairs.

Not only have we lost power—and this is the serious point—we have lost public support in defending ourselves. Witness what is happening over the Official Secrets Act, about which I personally think the press tends to get overexcited, and excessively so. The Government can do as they please with the Official Secrets Act (perhaps I should not tell them so) without the smallest risk of losing public support. The public are not interested in press susceptibilities about the Official Secrets Act; the public are far more interested in protecting their own rights of privacy.

There is one other area upon which I wish to touch, finally, to illustrate the consequences of public contempt for the press. One duty of a newspaper is occasionally to expose an individual, even at the risk of a libel action. I think a particularly important duty in this respect may sometimes lie on a newspaper's City pages. Sometimes this duty can be fulfilled only by letting the law take its course, by going to court and by refusing to settle out of court.

In my time as an editor of a national newspaper I had perhaps a hundred of these cases to weigh up—to go to court or to settle. I doubt if I would weigh up many cases today. I would settle and stay out of court. As the noble Earl has indicated, juries are finding a way of attaching public anger with the press to the damages which they award against a newspaper. Thus in my view a valuable freedom is lost. Defending what you believe to be right may now cost you a large sum of money related not so much to the libel which has been inflicted but to the opinion of the jury of present-day press methods. In my view that is a grievous trend.

Given the abundance of talented and honourable journalists at our disposal—and I think it is right to stress that—this seems to me to be a sorry condition for our national press to have reached. We are coming to a point when a glaring contradiction is to be observed. On the one hand, there is an abundance of talent at the disposal of the profession. In my time as editor I interviewed young aspirants, and the quality rose with every one I met. Yet the British press is sadly despised by large sections of the public.

In a maiden speech, which must be uncontroversial, I must be careful about what conclusions I add to this. I am reminded of the words used many years ago which I heard from the late Aneurin Bevan. He said that we should never attach blame to the monkey for the sins of the organ-grinder. If I may say so, it is not closer superintendence of what appears in newspapers that is most needed; it is closer attention to how and by whom newspapers are acquired.

8.44 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, it is an especial pleasure to me to discharge the conventional duty of your Lordships' House in welcoming a maiden speech, but there is nothing whatever conventional in what I shall say regarding the noble Lord, Lord Deedes. He was a distinguished and widely respected editor of the Daily Telegraph for a dozen years; an editor about whom I have never heard a sour comment or other than unstinted praise from people in his occupation, to whom praise comes with difficulty. He brought to his maiden speech real experience of the world of newspapers and also the ability to take a detached view of its present circumstances, for which no indulgence is required. What he said was wise and direct and your Lordships will hope that he will make frequent contributions to their proceedings.

Newspapers are fundamentally important in a democratic society as a central part of providing the comment, criticism and information without which a democratic electorate cannot make rational choices. At the same time they are an industry like any other and we all know that the only genuinely independent newspaper is one that makes a profit. They must sell in the market by meeting its demands. There is nothing new in the appeal of sex and violence to British or other readers. They appear to have revelled in them since the end of the 18th century.

A noble Lord

Long before!

Lord McGregor of Durris

Long before, my Lords. That does not make that more attractive but it is not to be forgotten either. I fear we are now a much more violent society than we were in the youth of many of us and we certainly have adopted new sexual attitudes and behaviour, not all of them for the worse. Certainly some of them permit a public expression of sexuality which has developed in very recent times.

Our newspapers today reflect those changes and that is part of the market. It seems to me that there is no possibility of arguing in favour of a free market for many goods and services and excluding newpapers from it. If they are not to be excluded from a free market, they are going to meet different segments of the reading market.

I agree with a great deal of the comment on the press made by the noble Earl, but he tended to speak as though the tabloids were a major part of the press. They are not. There are more than a thousand local newspapers, which hardly ever appear before the Press Council and rarely for any of the reasons that the noble Earl finds offensive. There are 6,000 or 7,000 periodicals only a tiny number of which could be covered by the criticisms that he was making. So do not let us talk of newpapers as though they consisted very largely of tabloids.

In the second place I find his assertion about deterioration very difficult to substantiate. I know that in my profession the quality of university entrants and other students has been deteriorating steadily for 40 years; everybody says so. All of us, as we get older, appear to see deterioration. But how do we demonstrate it? Certainly I and other people have tried.

I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, laid emphasis, as I think anyone who discusses this issue should, upon the improving quality of journalists. Journalists are now much better trained and much better informed than they used to be. No doubt some will say there is room for further improvement. Of course there is.

I do not suggest that there is a legend of deterioration, but before we assert it as an established generalisation we need a lot more evidence. When the noble Earl says that the tabloids are corrupting, he is attributing to newspapers an influence for which there seems to me to be very little evidence. People generally attribute a high influence to newspapers. Politicians think they are influential in shaping political opinions, just as many other people think that advertisers are influential in making people buy goods which they do not want or want goods they ought not to buy. Again, let us be sceptical about attempts to establish that sort of relationship.

For the sake of argument let us accept that all the noble Earl's charges are proved and we have to deal with a set of tabloids that are so influential that they are in fact corrupting. He wishes to deal with this by setting up in parallel with the proposed Broadcasting Standards Commission a Press Standards Commission. I have been trying to discover what the duties and powers of the Broadcasting Standards Commission are going to be. All that I have so far been able to find out is that it will be charged with a duty of monitoring sex and violence. The powers it will have when it has discharged that duty have not yet been stated. We do not know whether the broadcasting authorities will simply take note of what the commission says or whether they will have a duty to assimilate the findings of the commission in their own practical guidelines. I very much hope that the noble Earl who is to reply to the debate will enlighten us on these matters.

Suppose that we did have a Press Standards Council charged only with the duty of monitoring. How is a commission or a council going to monitor all the national daily, national Sunday and local newspapers and presumably all the periodicals as well? It seems out of the question that any single body could do that in any useful way.

There is a practical difficulty in deciding what the press body would cover. We come to a point of fundamental importance: the difference between the press and broadcasting. It is commonplace that from its birth broadcasting was regulated by governments because frequencies were scarce and governments had to allocate them. The sources of information in a democratic society such as ours are both broadcasting and the press. Broadcasting is much more accessible to control by government because one part of it is regulated by statute and the other part is subject to a Royal Charter. The press is the only institution in our society which is wholly independent of government in the ways in which it is set up and conducts itself within the law.

Together with many other democrats, I am exceedingly apprehensive about proposals the effect of which would be to bring government into control over the press. I am very glad to hear the noble Lord opposite saying "Hear, hear", because, as it has been stated on several occasions. I know that to be the view of the Government themselves. That difference between the press and broadcasting is a fundamental flaw in the proposal which the noble Earl has made. It is to a large extent on that ground that I would reject his proposal.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he sees any way of improving the quality of the tabloid press, or does he just think it is like the weather and something one cannot do anything about?

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I was going to come finally to attempt a quick answer to the noble Earl's question. The task is to make the self-regulatory Press Council effective. It is no accident that with the exception of Portugal and Sweden, where special and long-lasting considerations apply, no democratic society has the equivalent of a statutory press council. In almost all democratic societies this work is done by self-regulation. The reason for that is the plain one that they all recognise the imperative necessity of keeping the press independent from government.

I do not think that means that we have to accept that the sanctions that could be wielded by a press council must be wholly voluntary, save in the sense that they must be applied willingly by all members of the press. The noble Earl himself pointed to the fundamental failure, which is that some proprietors of a very small number of national papers will permit their editors at act in breach of the commonest and most widely accepted ethical standards of journalism. I see no possibility of persuading the press to accept the guidance of the Press Council in the areas that the noble Earl spoke about other than persuading the proprietors to instruct their editors to observe the ethical standards outlined in the guidance of the Press Council and I hope sooner or later to be set out in a code issued by it.

If we had a code that journalists and members of the public could read, this in itself would be a helpful development, but fundamentally it is the proprietors who have to be persuaded on this point. They have to be persuaded to give a public commitment to provide the Press Council with an adequate and regular income so that it does not have to carry a begging bowl around in order to keep itself going.

Secondly, they have to give a public commitment that they will instruct their editors to observe the guidelines of the Press Council. This would apply 'to very few newspapers because the vast majority observe the guidelines already. It is not beyond the wit of Her Majesty's Government to discover non-statutory means of exerting pressure upon the proprietors of delinquent newspapers. I do not know whether this has yet been attempted. If it has not, it certainly ought to be.

9.2 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, for his memorable maiden speech, which I am sure made a great impression on all of us on the basis of his wide experience.

I am happy to support the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in this debate. We both think alike basically on the issue of pornography and its corrupting influence, and he scratches my back as often as I scratch his. Broadly speaking I agree that a Press Standards Council ought to be set up. A good deal has been said over the years, and particularly in the debate on the noble Earl's Unstarred Question of 18th February 1987 (in which I took part) on the harmful influence of the press, and particularly the tabloid press. But in my view—which I think is widely shared—television and, to a lesser extent, radio are the greater evil, particularly where young people are concerned. I therefore warmly welcome the proposal to set up a Broadcasting Standards Council, although details of this body have not yet been announced, and I gather that the whole proposal is still under wraps.

And so I—and I think many others too—eagerly await the fruition of this splendid idea.

Here I must say a word or two about the Christian Broadcasting Council—which the noble Earl kindly mentioned—of which I am the treasurer. The main aim of this body, which was formed some four years ago, is to encourage the production of TV programmes which are positive, uplifting and constructive, in contrast to the negative and frequently destructive programmes which feature all too frequently on our screens.

Although we have not made any spectacular progress so far, and our activities have not yet come to the notice of the public at large, nevertheless the council has been able to stimulate the production of TV programmes suitable for family viewing. These programmes are, of course, made by Christian bodies. One example I could give is the video "Shadowland", made by Lela Productions, which has won several awards and was shown approximately a month ago on BBC 1. In speaking of the radio broadcasting sphere I might mention that several of the smaller provincial stations have producers who have put on some useful Christian-based programmes.

However, this debate is about the setting up of a Press Standards Council, to which I must now turn my attention. The principal need of such a council is surely to curb the excesses of the tabloid press, as the noble Earl, of course, agrees. I have said before, and I have no hesitation in saying again, that it is the young people—particularly perhaps the 12 to 20 year-olds—who are the most affected by these tabloids. Here I think especially of such teenage tabloids as Loving, Look Now, Honey and Jackie. All these publications have circulations in the region of 200,000 to 300,000.

One may well ask, "What harm do these magazines do?" Are not today's teenagers so steeped in sex (some of it, I fear, perverted) that the message of these glossies is like water off a duck's back? I do not share this view. There must be teenagers today—and I know several—who are, if not wholly uncorrupted, at least neutral in their attitudes, and it is surely such people who can be—and in many cases are—swayed by the sort of messages that these glossies put over.

The main themes running through many—indeed I would say probably most—of these repulsive publications seem to be the assumption that premarital sex, even if the participants are below legal age, is normal, natural and necessary; 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 promotion of the idea that homosexual relations are just as acceptable as heterosexual. Surely such a diet of amoral, if not downright immoral, ideas must pervert the young.

At all events—and the sooner the better—we must somehow endeavour to arrest the flow of moral ills which is slowly but inexorably seeping through our society. I liken this process to an overflowing cesspit. How well do I remember, as a child, before the days of piped sewage, seeing such a cesspit at my grandmother's house in the country. It gradually overflowed on to the garden and the tennis court, in the end making play there impossible and ruining lawns and flowerbeds. Every day it had advanced a few feet, and it seemed that nothing could stop that nauseating flow.

The question surely is: can the proposed Broadcasting Standards Council and, if it ever takes off, the Press Standards Council, wholly halt the flow of sewage—which is what it is—from the media? Although I strongly support the noble Earl in his proposal, I must admit that I have my doubts. Like the carpenter in Alice in Wonderland, I feel bound to say "I doubt it" and shed a bitter tear! But about one thing I am absolutely clear, and that is that these two councils must be based on Christian teaching. There seems to me to be no other basis for their existence. Christianity has been the bedrock of our civilisation over the past 2,000 years and must surely continue to be so.

9.10 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, first, I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, on his maiden speech. I welcome him all the more warmly as he is a distinguished editor and a veteran of journalism, who will fight to preserve the freedom of the press in spite of its notorious shortcomings.

When I read my noble friend's Unstarred Question, I was reminded of the story of a Jewish pants presser whose telephone rang one sweltering afternoon in New York. A refined voice asked, "Is that the House of Rothschild?" "Mister," he answered, "have you got the wrong number!" My noble friend has the wrong number today because this is a most unpropitious time to propose restrictions on the press. At the moment, as a consequence of the Wright and the Cavendish publications, the Government are in conflict with the most serious and respected newspapers in this country. This is not the time to go into the affair in depth and after all there are cases pending. It is sufficient if I quote from the Observer of last Sunday:

Like Ko-Ko in the Mikado, it said: Mrs Thatcher has a little list. On it appear the following names: the Observer, the Guardian, the Independent, the Sunday Times, the London Daily News (now deceased), the Evening Standard, the BBC, the Scotsman, the Glasgow Herald and the Sunday Telegraph.' But, unlike the Lord High Chancellor of Titipu, she cannot put them on the chopping block. What she can do, is to take them to court to prevent them from publishing things she does not want published. In a country which claims to value its democratic freedom, it is a remarkable catalogue of government interference in the full and fair reporting of matters of legitimate public interest". This very week, the day after tomorrow, the Government are to impose a three-line Whip to reject a Private Member's Bill, a Conservative Member of Parliament's attempt to reform Section 2 of the discredited Official Secrets Act 1911. There are good people, it is true, who sympathise with the Government's desire to prevent former officials in the security service telling us how it works or how it used to work. Yet they feel it essential to debate matters which have been brought into the public domain and which concern such serious subjects as the alleged breaking of the law by intelligence officers and alleged attempts to destabilise a democratically elected government. The Government are not well advised. Indeed it is a remarkable achievement for a Conservative Government to have antagonised the serious national newspapers, the universities, the medical profession and the Civil Service.

Now, although my noble friend's Unstarred Question comes at an unpropitious time, it is nevertheless timely. It is only a day or two since the annual report of the Press Council was published. It reports that for the third successive year it received a thousand complaints. I should like to quote from a lecture given about four weeks ago by Mr. Kenneth Morgan, the director of the Press Council. He said: This has been as bad a year for both press responsibility and press freedom as one can remember. The harassment of the Prince and Princess of Wales, the disclosure in the Archer libel action, for example, of the degree of prurience, intrusion into privacy and dubious methods to which popular newspapers can sink in search of circulation recalls Sir William Haley's description of them 40 years ago: 'newspapers who have moved into the entertainment industry—and not very high grade entertainment at that'. My noble friend is looking not at the aggrieved serious newspapers but at the other end of Fleet Street where the national tabloids are notionally published today. And his desire to discipline them is by no means sinister. He is wanting to recruit, it seems to me, not a policeman but a parson, who would express his moral disapproval and persuade the sinners to come to the penitent bench and change their ways.

Quite rightly, my noble friend called attention to some of the abuses of certain tabloids which publish stories that owe more to the imagination than to fact, even when they are referring to harmless and reputable members of the establishment such as the Royal Family. I deplore abuses of freedom, too. I long for the days of the popular serious paper—Pickering's Express, Barry's News Chronicle, Hardcastle's Mail, Cudlipp's Mirror and the stolid Labour Daily Herald. Those were what were then known as serious popular newspapers. The only survivor of them really is the Mail, which, although tabloid in size, is recognisable as the paper it has always been since Lord Northcliffe started it in 1896.

But we have to recognise today that the serious popular newspaper has lost its function—though not for ever—to the electronic newspaper which provides a middlebrow service of news and comment each day and all day from dawn until midnight. What the tabloids do is to give the kind of news which gets short shrift on television, and to give it with sensational impact so as to try to compete with the terribly powerful impact of colour television.

The pages are an awesome record of an age of violence and of random, value-free sex, and it is this and not just the abuses which some people wish to curb. They like to live in a beautiful world in which everyone reads the Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian or the Independent; but, alas, we are not all of such fine clay—not even all of us who serve in your Lordships' House. In our Library, we have each day 18 copies of The Times, 16 copies of the Telegraph, 12 copies of the Independent and 10 copies of the Guardian. But we also have eight copies of the Sun, the Express and the Mirror and we have three copies of the Star, the raunchiest of them all. Those tabloids, I am quite sure, are not consulted by noble Lords simply because of the sociological insights they provide. I suspect that they are read and enjoyed, and that for some of us page three stimulates happy memories of a long-departed virility.

Today I laid hands on the Sun and found a leading article attacking this House. Fair enough, but it was grossly inaccurate. They pictured us dozing off in the Chamber after lunching on ripe pheasant and vintage port. That is an example of the remarkable kind of folk memory of Fleet Street.

Thirty-odd years ago, Rab Butler as Chancellor of the Exchequer called the nation to vigorous action and to cast off the sloth induced by ripe pheasant and old port. Those were the days when there was gaiety in Fleet Street. Indeed, there used to be a very vivacious and idiosyncratic column written under the name of Arran. As I say, those were the days of gaiety, and the noble Lord, Lord Cudlipp, instructed Donald Zec to find a dozen working people to join him in dinner at the Savoy Hotel with ripe pheasant as the pièce de rèsistance, followed by old port.

He had great difficulty in getting a quorum. He approached a gang of navvies down a hole in the road and they told him to push off, or words to that effect. The bus drivers thought that he was checking on their schedules. But eventually he filled his table in the Princess Ida room and everybody enjoyed the port, though not the pheasant. The Sun must understand that we do not live in that way, that today's menu in the House of Lords offered plaice, liver, liver and bacon and lamb—the kind of menu which I am quite sure is to be found in the Sun canteen. One person in four was having a single glass of house wine. All the rest were drinking water. Not one bottle named Sandeman or Taylor was in sight.

To be serious, the new broadcasting body will be concerned with questions of taste, with the tone of television and radio. That may be necessary for a service which comes into the home and cannot be sampled in advance by a single mature person and if necessary censored. For broadcasting complaints there is still to be a separate body which corresponds to the Press Council. The Press Council does a pretty good job of work and there is no continuing problem, apart from one or two tabloids.

As the noble Lord asked, shall we monitor the whole press, national and local, because a few newspapers fall below the minimum standard? Broadcasting has never been free as the press is free because it has, for technical reasons, until now been a quasi-monopoly and is thought to require regulation. The press is the gander, the broadcasting companies are the goose, and they are very different creatures.

The press is free to publish within the law, and 12 million people buy these tabloids every day. Who can say that their style is wrong or their sensationalism unacceptable? Their errors, yes; their extravagances, yes. These are the products of competition in which all are struggling to excel or to survive. Each of these newspapers in today's conditions is going its own way and Fleet Street is losing even its geographical unity. I thoroughly agree with what was said about the need for proprietors to exercise their influence, but there is no chief proprietor around. We have nobody like Cecil King to offer leadership to Fleet Street. If the Prime Minister were to ask to whom she should go and talk, to exercise an influence over Fleet Street, I really do not know who that person would be. I do not think he exists.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? Surely Mr. Murdoch is enormously powerful. He is supposed to be on very close terms with the Prime Minister. Should she not be exercising some influence over him rather than the other way round?

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I have no idea what her relations with Mr. Murdoch are. All I know is that he is not in this country. One of the reasons newspapers in most parts of the world are capable of self-censoring is that they are local, provincial or regional newspapers. Their editors and proprietors are within sight of the local population and are subject to the praise and blame of that population. Here our proprietors, even our journalists, are remote from their readers.

However, I feel that this phase of the tabloid press will not last for ever. There are signs that for commercial reasons—not for any moral reason—both the Express and Today are trying to break out of the tabloid mould. They are doing it very timorously and not consistently, but I do not give up hope.

9.23 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, first I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Longford on your Lordships' behalf for introducing this debate on very interesting matters. He is to be thanked if only because he brought into the debate the worthy maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, which we also much enjoyed. If I may say so, he was also responsible for the speech of my noble friend Lord Ardwick, which we enjoyed very much indeed too.

I do not know whether it is coincidence or that eternal providential sense of humour which has always had as its agent in this House the Chief Whip's Office that this debate follows immediately on the growing problem of environmental pollution. It seems to have been a very worthy introduction to the speech of my noble friend Lord Longford.

I must confess that that immediately brought me to read again some portions of the report of the Royal Commission which was chaired with such eminence by the then Professor McGregor, now our colleague the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, who participated in this debate. I cannot help it. I cannot resist the temptation to read to your Lordships the poem by William Cowper which preceded the introduction to that report. It is entitled "The Progress of Error" and it was written in 1782. It states: How shall I speak thee, or thy power address, Thou god of our idolatry, the Press? By thee, religion, liberty and laws Exert thy influence and advance their cause: By thee, worse plagues than Pharaoh's land befell, Diffused, make earth the vestibule of hell: Thou fountain, at which drink the good and wise, Thou ever-bubbling spring of endless lies, Like Eden's dread probationary tree, Knowledge of good and evil is from thee". I think that that poem possibly illustrates in rather beautiful language the fact that was brought out in this debate, that the evils of the press as we have seen them illustrated tonight by examples from some portions of that press do not belong only to the 1980s. William Cowper wrote that poem 200 years ago almost to the day.

What is the problem that is thrown up? We have a glory in this country. I believe that there is no division in your Lordships' House—there should not be—between the Government Benches and the Opposition on this great principle which is our glory; that is the freedom of the press. Alter that freedom, manacle that freedom by any kind of governmental control and the treasure, the jewel that we possess, will become tarnished in no time at all. In governmental hands that your Lordships cannot forecast at this moment heaven help the inheritance that we have of the freedom of the press.

I do not go all the way with the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, when he asked why, as there is a free market in everything else, there should not be a free market in the press. There is not a free market in goods which hurt the health of the nation, be they adults or be they the young. There are curbs upon that freedom in that those products are not allowed to hurt the health of the nation.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, If I may say so, my words were "within the law".

Lord Mishcon

Yes, my Lords. The words used were "within the law". Obviously if the law were to be imposed here by Parliament—I speak in the context of the Official Secrets Act—and it had the effect of limiting the freedom of the press in any statutory form, I believe that we would be doing wrong. But we must ensure that the curbs which are very often voluntarily accepted in industries, be they the tobacco industry or other industries, are imposed upon sections of the media such as the press. If I may say so the press has at the same time got a complaint. The complaint is not that it is being made a mockery of in regard to certain freedoms but that the courts are now being made a mockery of. I say that with sadness.

In this debate your Lordships have referred to Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act. This morning I read in The Times a short paragraph which I shall read to your Lordships in order to show where we have gone in this matter and how necessary it is for the Government to act. I know all the difficulties of a previous Bill brought before Parliament where there was disagreement and where the Bill therefore was not enacted. However, there is a very firm duty imposed on the Government to see that not only the press but also our system of justice is rescued from the ridiculous situation which is created by the wording of Section 2 and all its uncertainties.

The portion I wish to read from The Times is on page 2. Judge has second thoughts on 'spy'". The article continues: A judge who last week stopped The Scotsman from publishing extracts from the memoirs of Mr. Anthony Cavendish, the former MI6 officer, has had second thoughts. Lord Coulsfield said yesterday that he now felt his interdict"— your Lordships will know that that is the Scottish word for an injunction— constituted an 'undue interference with discussion of matters of public interest'. In a written judgment at the Court of Session in Edinburgh, he said the interdict should be recalled. A decision on whether to do so will be taken in the Court of Session of January 26th. At the appeal hearing, the judges will also hear arguments by the Glasgow Herald and Scottish television. Lord Coulsfield said yesterday that he now deferred to the view put forward by the Lord Advocate, Lord Cameron of Lochbroom, that the matter was in the public interest". The noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate is a very respected figure in your Lordships' House. Apparently he, as a member of the Government and in the responsible position of Lord Advocate, has been saying to a judge: "You are wrong in thinking that this matter is not in the public interest. It is." There is confusion throughout and the country's judges are being put in a ridiculous position. Parliament must put on its thinking cap in order to get a sensible Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act as speedily as possible.

What is the purpose of this Question? Knowing my noble friend and respecting him as I do, I believe that it is to bring to the attention of the House the falling standards to which the noble Lord, Lord Deedes, referred in his memorable speech. He is right to do that. There is no doubt about the falling standards. Your Lordships have had questions of sex and violence brought before you. But what about the invasion of privacy and photographers pushing into all sorts of places in a way never known before so far as Fleet Street is concerned. I have seen it with my own eyes and it is a disgrace. It is done on the basis that you must bring back to your editor stuff that will presumably improve the circulation of your paper, regardless of the moral issues involved and regardless of what you do to human beings.

Reference has been made to members of the Royal Family. It is perfectly true that they have the respect and affection of the majority of people in the nation. I say with every sense of responsibility that the repeated scandalous stories are eating at the very foundations of our constitution. They are producing an effect in regard to members of the Royal Family which is absolutely pitiable. They cannot defend themselves. If a politician's reputation is attacked, he can get up and defend himself. An ordinary member of the public who is attacked can issue a writ for libel if, as was pointed out, he can afford to do so. But what can members of the Royal Family do other than to rely on the decencies of Fleet Street, upon which one was able to rely for quite a few generations.

I do not think that the solution suggested by my noble friend is appropriate in this case. In this House a Question was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, for Written Answer. It was answered on 26th October 1987. He asked what plans the Government had for strengthening the oversight of the portrayal of violence and sex in broadcasting. The Minister of State at the Home Office, who at that time was the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, replied by explaining the purpose of this Council: We propose to establish a new Broadcasting Standards Council, divorced from programme making, which will act as a focus for public concern about the portrayal of violence and sex on all forms of television and radio receivable in the United Kingdom. Responsibility for enforcing programme standards and for responding to complaints will remain with the broadcasting authorities". So it is not with this council, my Lords. The Minister continued: but the new council will be able to monitor the relevant programme standards and publicise its findings, where necessary on individual programmes. It will also be able to initiate studies and research on the relevant programme standards". The difference between broadcasting coming into the home and the newspaper being voluntarily purchased on the newstand has already been brought out. However, this is not the sort of council that will have the powers which I believe the noble Earl seeks for an equivalent council in the newspaper world.

What should we be doing? Something ought to be done. I respectfully suggest to the House that we ought to be strengthening the Press Council which is already there. What were the views of the Royal Commission which was presided over, as I have said, by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor? On page 215 of the report the commission sums up: we consider that the Press Council should be funded in the same way as at present, and with greater resources to enable the work to be extended, but with lay members, if the Chairman is included, in a majority; should have more staff and more money to advertise itself, its purposes, and the standards it upholds; should initiate more complaints itself, institute procedures designed to lead to speedy conciliation and provide an effective right of reply". Furthermore—and the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, referred to this in his speech—it: should operate a written code of conduct for journalists; should express its condemnations in a more forthright way, give reasons for its decisions, and take a stronger line on inaccuracy and bias. We leave it to the Press Council to decide whether these proposed changes in its role, and particularly the emphasis which we believe it must give to protecting the public interest, require formal change in the objects set out in paragraph 20.10. We hope that these recommendations will be accepted and acted on by the Press Council, and that it will fulfil the hopes that were held for it in 1949". That is almost 40 years ago. The Press Council does not advertise in the national press. The public do not know enough about the Press Council and their right to complain to it. Advertisements appear in the regional and local press, but not in the national press. I ask, "Why not?" That was recommended by the Royal Commission and it is a very sensible recommendation.

There is not yet a code for journalists, and the Press Council has relied upon the ruling that it has already given, building up a common law based on precedent. That, I know, was very much the wish of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Devlin, who is a very distinguished past chairman of the Press Council. But precedents are not good enough. The facts of the position can differ from a previous precedent. Precedents take years before they become comprehensive as a code of conduct. Why not have a code of conduct? Why does not the Press Council get on with it, one might ask? I ask the question in this speech tonight. What about an obligatory agreement to observe the standards and the code? There are objections to that, I am told. There could be arguments from those who do not sign the contract. It could have other disadvantages.

Why should we not have an exclusive club of which all Fleet Street could be members, indicated on the front page of any newspaper that wished to do so—and one would hope that they all would, and the approach could then be made to the proprietors as has been suggested—with the words "This paper is subject to the jurisdiction of the Press Council." That is the exclusive club. If one does not print that one does not belong to the exclusive club. What do the words "subject to the jurisdiction of the Press Council" mean? They mean a written undertaking to abide by its code, to accept its decision, and to cooperate in any inquiries that may be held.

Why does not the Press Council advertise its findings where there has been a complaint but not simply, as very often happens, through the newspaper against which the complaint was made? That is presumably read by the loyal readers of that newspaper, who will continue to read it. Why should not the whole of the public know as a result of the decision, and a direct advertisement by the Press Council, that a complaint was made against newspaper A, that the complaint was whatever it was, that the paper has been condemned by the Press Council, and that the reasons for the condemnation are as set out? That, again, would strengthen the Press Council—a voluntary council. As a result of these matters recommended in the main a long time ago in the report of the Royal Commission, we should have a Press Council which would at last have some teeth even though it relied upon voluntary cooperation. As a result of such matters our Fleet Street might return to a healthier state than at present.

9.43 p.m.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, first and foremost I want to say how grateful I am that the noble Earl has raised this matter—a matter of great topicality and interest. It was only last February that he brought before your Lordships' House the question of the moral standards of the tabloid press, and in his speech then he suggested that he was dealing with a subject which, so far as he knew, had not been dealt with in this House before. Although his starting point this evening is rather different, many of the concerns he raised last February have continued to attract much attention. And, more generally, questions relating to both the press and broadcasting have been very much in the public eye. The House will be grateful to the noble Earl for making this evening another notable contribution to public debate about these matters.

I should also like to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Deedes on the occasion tonight of his maiden speech. For many years he distinguished himself as the editor of the Daily Telegraph. This evening he has distinguished himself in the wisdom and knowledge that he has brought to this debate. We know that his huge experience in newspaper matters, and many others besides, will at all times be much to the benefit of your Lordships' House.

Secondly, the press is a subject not altogether unknown to me personally, since it was my employer for almost 10 years of my life—albeit, I vouchsafe, on the managerial side. It is impossible not to agree with and support much that the noble Earl and many other speakers have said. I am sure that all noble Lords will at one time or another have sympathised with the character in Tom Stoppard's play "Night and Day", who said: I am with you on the freedom of the press. It's the newspapers I can't stand". When the subject of press freedom was debated in another place last November a disturbing number of honourable Members cited instances in which they had been misreported or had been the subject of erroneous stories in the press. They were concerned not for themselves but more for what this might suggest about the treatment of individuals more generally by some parts of the press. There have been particular instances mentioned by some noble Lords, such as the intrusion by journalists into the privacy of members of our Royal Family—and I am thinking of intrusion well beyond what could possibly be justified as being of legitimate public concern—in which public opinion has reacted strongly against standards of professional conduct which were clearly unacceptable. Such naked and aggressive intrusion into the privacy of members of the Royal Family is, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, forcefully pointed out, abhorrent to all sides of your Lordship's House.

I do not for a moment suggest that such instances are representative of the state of the press in the United Kingdom as a whole. Indeed, there have been very encouraging developments, such as the way in which the Independent has established itself as an award-winning new daily paper of very high quality. In other respects the condition of the press has improved greatly over the past few years. In particular, restrictive practices and excessive manning levels are both on the retreat. All that I am saying is that the noble Earl has again rightly raised matters which must give us food for thought.

Another part of the background to this debate is the public concern which has been expressed about the portrayal of sex and violence in broadcast programmes, and especially on television. This concern was reinforced by the Hungerford tragedy, but existed before then. It was recognised in the Conservative Party manifesto, which gave a commitment to strengthen the oversight of programme standards.

Later last year my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced his plans for implementing that commitment. A Broadcasting Standards Council is to be established, initially in advance of legislation, although it will be placed on a statutory footing at the earliest opportunity. The BSC will not be a regulatory body, but will act as a focus of public concern about the portrayal of violence and sex on TV, radio and in videos. The new council will be able to consider and analyse complaints, initiate discussion and research and, where necessary, express and publicise views on individual programmes without waiting for its annual report. It will also be able to stand back and look at patterns and trends across the areas for which the individual regulatory bodies are responsible. We expect it to be, indeed it must be, influential. Certainly, it will not be and must not be toothless. It should reinforce rather than undermine the regulatory responsibilities of the BBC, the IBA, the cable authority and the other responsible bodies. The BSC is at an advanced stage of preparation, and my right honourable friend will be making a further announcement about it very shortly. I know that the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, among other noble Lords, keenly awaits these details.

With the increasing background of concern about standards in some parts of the press, it is only natural to ask whether an equivalent of the BSC is needed to strengthen the oversight of press standards. Such an argument clearly has its attractions, and the noble Earl has made his case with penetration and skill. I would counsel caution against any underlying assumption that the press and broadcasting are, or should be treated, on the same footing. I want to advance six points in arguing against making too much of any apparent parallels.

First, our constitutional arrangements for broadcasting have recognised from the outset the unique nature of the broadcasting medium. Some noble Lords may say that it does not make much difference whether dubious material appears in a newspaper or on television. If it is salacious or offensive, then it is its salacity or offensiveness which counts and not the medium by which it is delivered. That is true as far as it goes. But it leaves out of consideration the fact that television and radio programmes have a vividness, a capacity for addressing a vast audience absolutely simultaneously, a potential instrusiveness and an apparent authority which articles in the press cannot match. This difference in the nature of the two media is not of itself conclusive, although it does, I believe, partly explain why general public concern about violence and sex on television has been more anxious and more strongly expressed than public concern about press standards. But the difference underlies other respects in which the parallel breaks down and it is these respects I shall return to later in my argument.

Secondly—and again I do not advance this on its own as a decisive consideration—this Government are rightly sceptical of any proposal which involves creating a new statutory body unless the case for it is fully made out. If broadcasting and the press were on exactly the same footing, then the same logic which led to our proposal to establish the new Broadcasting Standards Council would also apply to the noble Earl's proposal for a Press Standards Council. For reasons which I will explain, we are not convinced that it does.

Before I move on, it is worth mentioning that some people have argued that the remit of the Broadcasting Standards Council should extend to the press and to the cinema. In this way they seek to achieve the same end as the noble Earl, but without creating a further new quango. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has rejected this proposal. We do not want to dilute the effectiveness of the BSC by giving it too wide a remit. If a demarcation is to be drawn, the natural way of doing it is to include programmes which may be heard or seen by the whole family in the same sitting room from the same or linked equipment, irrespective of whether what is being watched is a television programme or a video, or which radio programme is being listened to. The historical development of, and oversight arrangements for, cinema and the press are in fact very different.

My third point is that we should not underestimate the effectiveness of the existing Press Council. While my fourth and fifth points will be concerned with the implications of replacing the Press Council or giving it new statutory powers, I want to pause first on the role which the Press Council currently performs. This is not always understood, and some comments about the council have been unfair or misconceived.

It was on the recommendation of the first Royal Commission on the Press that a General Council of the Press was established to provide a framework of self-regulation for the press. The Press Council now has 18 professional members and 18 lay members under an independent chairman.

Over the last 10 years the council's caseload has trebled. The council has sharpened up its procedures. For instance, since 1978 it has had an official conciliator who can employ informal procedures to reach agreement between the parties on a complaint. Since 1984 it has operated a fast track correction procedure. This expects editors to correct significant inaccuracies within six days. The council aims to rule on any complaint of such inaccuracies within a fortnight. These changes followed the recommendations of the most recent Royal Commission on the Press. The Royal Commission thought they were preferable to undermining the Press Council by establishing a separate press ombudsman. The Press Council has implemented them.

The Press Council's adjudications constitute an important set of principles for the press and in 1985 it did actually publish a digest of these in convenient book form.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, before the noble Earl continues, I hope that he will deal with the suggestions as to how the four recommendations of the Royal Commission could be observed. Will he make clear the fact that the principles to which he has referred in the booklet refer only to past decisions and not to a code for journalists?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, as always, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, for making matters clear on that point.

It is frequently claimed that the council is a watchdog without teeth. The independent chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen, is quite clear that it is wrong to argue that the council is an apologist for the press. He says that press members on the council are often the sternest critics of a newspaper's performance. The council requires publication of its adverse adjudications. This requirement is almost invariably respected, although there are questions about whether adjudications are published with a publicity and visibility comparable with that of the original offending material. The Press Council's adjudications undoubtedly carry moral authority. Where, as often happens—for instance in matters concerning the privacy of the Royal Family—the adjudications coincide with a strong public feeling that fair play has not been observed, it is a foolish editor who pays no heed. His rivals in the circulation wars will not hesitate to publicise the council's adverse findings.

My fourth point takes up the implications of giving the Press Council sharper teeth. My suspicion is that, depending on what form these sanctions took, they would either be ineffective or would be bought at a very high price. The foreword to the council's 1979 report by the then Chairman, Sir Patrick Neill, devastatingly exposed the deficiencies of the Steyn Bill in South Africa, which tried to provide teeth for a proposed General Council for Journalists by imposing special statutory controls on the profession of journalism.

Few of us would want to go down that road. But any special statutory powers—and this is my fifth point—would necessarily involve us in abandoning the principle, which has served this country well since 1695, that the press is subject to the law of the land in exactly the same way as the ordinary citizen. It was in recognition of the dangers of departing from the time-honoured framework of press freedom in this country that three successive Royal Commissions on the press recommended against switching from voluntary to statutory regulation. And if ever statutory powers were to be granted for the regulation of the press why then not at a later date that same statutory power for magazines and books!

Newspaper editors are free in law to decide what to publish, save only for the need to observe the law to which all citizens are subject on such matters as defamation, obscenity and contempt of court. While recognising the strength of concerns about some aspects of behaviour by some journalists, the Government do not believe that the case for special legislative arrangements for oversight of the press is yet strong enough to justify the departure from our traditional framework of press freedom which this would entail. We should remember Macaulay's comment that Parliament's refusal to renew the Licensing Act in 1694: attracted little attention…but has done more for liberty and civilisation than the Great Charter or the Bill of Rights". But I should stress that the press themselves could tilt the balance of the argument if they became significantly less responsive to the Press Council.

My sixth point returns again to the differences between the press and broadcasting. Partly because broadcasting is a more vivid and intrusive medium, its whole regulatory history and framework has been different. Its regulation is entrusted to broadcasting authorities, acting as trustees for the public interest, which are rightly expected to set much higher standards than the general law in such areas as good taste and decency. The broadcasting authorities are also concerned with such matters as accuracy and impartiality in broadcasting, and the BBC and the IBA have drawn up their own guidelines on right of reply. As regards unfair treatment and the invasion of privacy, there is a statutory Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

There are other differences, too. Broadcasting electromagnetic spectrum is scarce, although ways of increasingly overcoming spectrum scarcity are an important part of future policy thinking; little of broadcasting finance has been raised through direct consumer payment; and broadcasting has traditionally been provided as a public good on public service principles. In each of these respects there is no real parallel with the press. The implications of these differences range very widely, but I should like to note one here. This is that the economics of the press and broadcasting are very different.

In the case of the press there is a direct market relationship between a newspaper and its readers, which at present exists only to a very limited extent in the case of broadcasting. Apart from anything else, this may help to explain why concern about press standards is different in kind as well as degree from concern about violence and sex on television. The newspaper industry is subject to, and has to be responsive to, market signals which do not at present exist in the same form in the case of broadcasting.

At this point I should like briefly to turn to a few points mentioned by noble Lords in the debate. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, asked for a review on legal aid in cases of libel. Since the inception of the legal aid scheme in 1949 actions for defamation have been expressly excluded from legal aid by statute. Legal aid has never been available for defamation proceedings because such actions are intrinsically precarious and uncertain and are more likely to prove fruitless, trivial or ill-founded than other kinds of proceedings.

My noble friend Lord Deedes warned us in a most solemn and carefully considered speech of the sorry condition that the press had reached. I note carefully some of the excellent points he made. The noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, talked of the violent times in which we live and said that newspapers only serve to reflect such times; but are not such times brought on, albeit inadvertently, by newspapers?

The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, repeated his anxieties over the editorial policies and standards of some of the magazines currently on the market, mentioning a need for a more Christian and less profane editorial attitude. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, was not one to praise the current scene of newspapers in this country—in fact, the reverse. I wish I were more optimistic about his signs of improvement in several newspapers.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, read, if I may say so, with his usual eloquence a poem by William Cowper to demonstrate his points. On the point that he made concerning the statutory right of privacy, the Younger Committee on privacy saw risks in placing excessive reliance on the law in order to preserve privacy. It commented that it was impossible to devise any satisfactory yardstick by which to judge, in cases of doubt, whether the importance of a public story should override the privacy of people and personal information involved.

The Royal Commission on the press recommended against a statutory right of privacy on a number of grounds. In addition to the arguments advanced by the Younger Committee about the difficulty of applying a public interest test in this context, it also considered the Press Council a better forum for etablishing rules of conduct for the press in relation to invasions of privacy; and argued that the Press Council's status and importance would be reduced if its jurisdiction in this area of activity were to be removed.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, the noble Earl is always very courteous, and I intervene only to make my position quite clear. I did not in any part of my speech suggest that there should be a statutory protection of privacy. I was again talking about the code of conduct.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has said.

In making these six points I have tried to bring out that in terms of its history, its legal framework, its economics, its technological nature and in many other respects, broadcasting is not on all fours with the press, even though appearances may sometimes suggest the contrary. Therefore, although it may sound attractive to set up a Press Standards Council similar to the Broadcasting Standards Council we must have regard to the many dissimilarities between the two media. It follows from what I have said that a statutory Press Standards Council could not occupy in relation to the press a parallel position to that envisaged for the Broadcasting Standards Council in relation to broadcasting.

In my conclusion of the case for the Government declining to set up a Press Standards Council I wish to make one final point, and perhaps the most telling of all. While the Government have undoubted understanding of, and sympathy for, concern about the at times grave irresponsibilities of members of the national press, they nevertheless consider that not only would the creation of an effective ombudsman—and I stress "effective"—or of a statutory body be extremely difficult to bring about but that the dangers posed by the interference with the liberty of the press that might ensue would be severe.

Nonetheless we cannot and never will eliminate the possibility of statutory controls if serious public concern over conduct by members of the press is not met by the present arrangements. Never should the proprietors of national newspapers look upon themselves as being inviolate or at all times able to hang a "hands off" sign outside their gates. That would constitute the gravest folly. At all times journalists must prove themselves worthy of the British tradition of press freedom. It is debates such as today's which will serve to remind them that that heritage, which is rightly prized, should never be taken for granted.

With those thoughts in mind, that is why the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has performed a great service in once again raising the question of press standards in your Lordships' House.

House adjourned at seven minutes past ten o'clock.