HL Deb 26 April 1989 vol 506 cc1274-311

3.4 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris rose to call attention to The Press and the People, the 35th Annual Report of the Press Council 1988; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, there is nothing new in debates in this House on the Press Council. It has been discussed on several occasions in recent years. However, what is new today is the atmosphere in which this Motion will be debated.

Public and parliamentary censure of the press has never been so severe. One main reason was stated starkly by the noble Lord, Lord Cudlipp, a former chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers and a leading popular journalist of his generation, when he gave the eulogy at the memorial service for his old colleague, the distinguished editor, the late Lord Jacobson. He spoke of the present as an: age when investigative journalism in the public interest shed its integrity and became intrusive journalism for the prurient, when nothing, however personal, was any longer secret or sacred and the basic human right to privacy was banished in the interest of instant publishing profit—when the daily nipple count and the sleazy stories about bonking bimbos achieved a dominant influence in the circulation charts…when significant national and international events were nudged aside…Some of these foolish things…have always been allotted a share of the newsprint…now it is overkill. At the birth of a new century the proprietors and editors of the tabloid press apparently live in fear of instant bankruptcy if they dare to mention in their newspapers the activities of the human race when not in bed". I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cudlipp, expressed the feelings of many newspaper people as well as of Parliament. They help to explain why the chairman of the Press Council has announced, in its recently published annual report, the setting up of: a committee to review its role and function and related matters…[and] to construct a Press Council that responds more actively to social conditions [and to the] increasingly hostile [response] to some of the outpourings of some sections of the press". That taint on the fourth estate has involved deliberate invention, inaccuracy, lies and unacceptable invasions of the privacy of ordinary citizens whose reported tribulations are often in no sense matters of public interest, although they may be fashioned into subjects of interest to the public. One further result has been attacks upon the Press Council, the self-regulatory institution set up by the press more than 30 years ago.

The gravamen of today's critics is the same as that of the Royal Commission which reported in 1977 that: it is happily certain that the Council have so far failed to persuade the knowledgeable public that it deals satisfactorily with complaints against newspapers, notwithstanding that this has come to be seen as its main purpose". We must not forget that present censure is directed against a very small number of tabloid newspapers. The great mass of publications—the many hundreds of regional and local newspapers and the several thousand periodicals—are conducted in accordance with responsible standards and an insignificant number have been arraigned over the years before the Press Council. What must be faced is the conduct of a small handful of national papers. Improvement will depend upon a definition of the real problem. The recently debated statutory right of reply, for example, would not have touched the delinquent tabloids but would have turned the production of quality national and regional dailies and Sundays into a nightmare, with an inevitable curtailment of freedom of reporting and comment.

Throughout the whole democratic world, the press has been under pressure to become accountable—to use present day jargon—to its readers. Several methods have been proposed for that purpose, but in Britain we have put our faith in a Press Council, although notional ombudsmen have been appointed on a couple of papers. For many years, the Press Council's response to any criticism of its constitution, procedures and effectiveness was arrogant, self-righteous and petulant. Happily the past devotion of a small number of leading newspapermen to the work of the council and its present good fortune in attracting a director and chairman of high reputation and standing have reinforced the efforts of the individual members and officers who have pursued the aims of the council selflessly.

In truth, self-regulation has survived in the newspaper industry only because members of the council have struggled to overcome the constitutional and other defects of the system within which they have to work. Thus the council's independence, if not respect for its adjudications, is well established. The crucial question now is how the council may be assisted to achieve obedience from newspapers to its guidelines and the principles of its adjudications. Few critics are persuaded that at present offenders feel that censure in a Press Council adjudication imposes a sufficient humiliation upon a newspaper, an editor or a journalist. The readiest answer has been given by those who would equip the council with enforceable legal sanctions such as fines or the suspension of journalists.

At the beginning of its work most members of the last Royal Commission sympathised with proposals for tough sanctions designed to strengthen the council's powers of enforcement or even to replace it with a statutory body possessing legal powers to compel obedience. However, an institution endowed with such powers would give potential control over the press to an ill disposed government. As the commission held that all governments are likely to become ill disposed toward the press, it recommended the retention of the voluntary council and pointed to the dangers to the independence of the press and freedom of expression which must lurk in any statutory body.

Moreover, any voluntary or statutory scheme containing sanctions would present severe practical and administrative problems. For example, if fines were to be a sanction their level would be difficult to set. Would it depend on the gravity of the offence or on the ability of the newspaper or the individual journalist to pay? How would such ability be assessed? On whom would fines be levied in particular cases—on the journalist, the editor or the publisher? In exactly what circumstances would it be right for a journalist to be suspended? Should someone under threat of suspension have the right of appeal and, if so, to whom? How could suspension be enforced against a journalist who was a freelance? The difficulty of answering those questions amounts to a grave objection to any scheme of formal penalties involving fines or suspension.

Of the several other overwhelming arguments against such an approach I shall mention only two. First, a statutory body with legal powers can be created only by government, which would acquire in consequence a ready and direct means of controlling the press and undermining or destroying its independence—which is an essential basis of a democracy in which government already wield statutory powers over broadcasting, the other main source of news and information.

The second argument is that journalists cannot be suspended or made subject to legal penalties unless the authority possesses the power to know who they are and where they are. That would require a register of journalists and the establishment of criteria to determine whether or not a person was entitled to be registered. The risks of such a procedure are obvious. None of us is likely to forget that a register of journalists was a central feature of the several UNESCO proposals advanced in the so-called New World and Communication Order, fear of which was an important factor in withdrawal from UNESCO by the United States and British Governments.

So what remains in the way of sanctions which would not carry a danger to freedom is moral censure. Regrettably that is often ineffectual and especially so as the Press Council has persistently refused to draw up a code of practice and conduct for journalists despite many exhortations over the years. Nevertheless, for 15 years the council ignored the recommendation of the last Royal Commission that a code should be drafted. Until it faces up to the undoubted difficulties and embarrassments of preparing and publishing a code, the public and journalists for whose protection it exists cannot know with certainty what the rules are and therefore whether they merit support or criticism.

Most newspapers in Britain are conducted responsibly but a handful of delinquents have created an opinion among the politically influential which is very hostile to the press. Freedom of the press is always at risk and no one puts it at greater risk today than publishers whose editors pursue competitive advantage without observing standards or restraints. There is a small number of editors who have forgotten that the worst sin that a journalist can commit is to print sensational conclusions deriving from inaccurate and unchecked information.

The Government have just issued what the press must treat as a final warning. In the debate in another place last week on the right of reply they said that: the editors and publishers of the national press in Britain are on probation. They have a year or two in which to clean up their act, If they succeed…effective, quick and fair self-regulation that protects the position and rights of the private individual and the small man who cannot look after himself very well will remain the order of the day. That will happen without statutory control of the press. If not, Parliament will certainly return to this issue". [Official Report, Commons, 21/4/89; col. 593.] So perhaps it is appropriate that the Press Council has recently appointed a new chairman with much experience of the probation service during his long chairmanship of the Howard League for Penal Reform. Mr. Blom-Cooper has made his position crystal clear. He is determined to undertake a rapid root and branch reform of the unwieldy composition and structure of the Press Council and he holds that the acquisition of legal sanctions would defeat his purpose. He is committed to prevent government intervention in the press, and that clearly depends upon the success of the review.

To this end the best—indeed, I think the only—possibility of keeping interventionists at bay and assisting the Government and the reformed Press Council to achieve their declared objectives would be for the publishers and proprietors of newspapers and periodicals to enter into two public commitments. First, they must resolve the long-standing difficulties of agreeing an equitable basis for providing the council with a regular and indexed income sufficient for the swift discharge of its functions. Secondly, the publishers and proprietors, especially the proprietors of the national press, should instruct their editors to observe the code of practice and guidelines laid down by the council. That would be easy to organise, given the concentration of ownership of national titles. Such a commitment when announced would help to restore public confidence and give a radically reformed Press Council an assured authority to enforce standards set in consultation with the industry and the public.

It has often been said that such commitments cannot be made because the national newspaper industry is too competitive. But the competitive position of each national tabloid will not be endangered if all are subject to the same code impartially enforced by the Press Council. The Newspaper Society, which represents all regional papers, and the Periodical Publishers Association both accept the need for such a commitment. I know of no valid reason why the national press should not follow suit. If some proprietors now refuse to act voluntarily they will put the whole of the free press under the certainty of statutory intervention and whatever that may imply for the future.

Let us not forget the wide range of governmental interventions in the press proposed in the Labour Party's document of 1974, The People and the Media which has not yet been repudiated by that party. If the Press Council fails, assuredly the Government will legislate. The refusal of a small section of the national press to make concessions in proper time and in a becoming spirit has brought the newspaper and periodical industry to a perilous juncture. I am very sensible of the grave danger of direct governmental intervention in the press. I respect the way in which the Government have handled the present pressure for legislation and the support that the Government have given to a self-regulatory Press Council.

I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, will follow me. I await his contribution with keen interest. The Government have gone to considerable and welcome hortatory lengths to save all newspapers from the folly of a few. I hope that the Minister will be willing to assure the House that the Government's public statements will be accompanied by sharper though private exhortations to those proprietors whose papers have been responsible for the explosion of public censure. Perhaps I may apologise to the House if I have overstepped my time but the indicator stopped working after five minutes. I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Stevens of Ludgate

My Lords, a s most noble Lords know, I am chairman of a major publishing group. I feel today that I may be somewhat outnumbered. Last week in another place a Private Member's Bill to give ordinary citizens or groups of citizens the legally enforceable right to reply over newspaper inaccuracies was talked out. Another such Bill, this one aimed at protecting privacy, may be destined to follow it. I view their fate with mixed feelings—primarily, relief.

That there should be attempts to put the measures proposed by these Bills on to the statute book comes as no surprise. The sponsors, whose motives commanded considerable cross-party support, were undoubtedly responding to a growing mood of public disquiet over the antics of a minority of the national press. It is true, alas, that some in the press regard the regular breaching of good taste, common decency and traditional journalistic ethics, as a form of virility test which they are determined never to fail. Both Bills have been widely, and in my view rightly, condemned as flawed. If either became law it would seriously undermine press freedom. We should approach with extreme caution any attempt to improve standards of press behaviour by legislation, no matter how well drafted.

Perhaps I may remind noble Lords of the words of a former Lord Chancellor the late Lord Kilmuir who opposed attempts to put a protection of privacy Bill on to the statute book in 1961. Lord Kilmuir had this to say: We have all seen examples in the press where reports have been published of the private affairs of unfortunate people, which have appeared to us to be in the worst possible taste" — words, noble Lords will recognise, with an eerily contemporary ring— and if it were feasible to ensure by legislation that the press never erred in matters of taste, I should be the first to promote that legislation. But I do not believe that this can be done". I think that that view is as correct today as it was 28 years ago.

The Press Council has also warned of the difficulties and dangers of legislating against alleged press intrusion. Drawing on 35 year's experience, it says in its latest annual report: The council is convinced that the right of privacy is incapable of satisfactory definition by statute law and any attempt to legislate on privacy would be contrary to the public interest". It continues: No statutory enactment on privacy could itself secure that degree of protection which would satisfy those who consider it to be of paramount importance without at the same time curtailing the right of the public at large to be informed about, and know of, matters of public concern. Any such enactment would make it more difficult for the press to carry out those duties of vigilance, inquiry and disclosure which are appropriate to a healthy democracy". Where does one draw the line between public and private? What is invasion of privacy to some is legitimate disclosure to others. Despite the indignation that some newspaper behaviour understandably provokes, I believe that most members of the public—and I emphasise the public—do not want a legal blunderbuss taken to what is a limited problem. Indeed, as has been commented on before, the general public is somewhat schizophenic—some might prefer the term hypocritical—about the press, above all about that section of the tabloid press whose misbehaviour provokes most criticism.

Let us take, for example, the Sun and the News of the World. Both of these newspapers have been roundly and regularly criticised in recent years. It would not be unfair or inaccurate to suggest that these are the two starring exhibits in most people's rogues' gallery. Some might also wish to include my own group's Daily Star but I do not consider that the Star falls into this category today.

A noble Lord

Hear, hear.

Lord Stevens of Ludgate

My Lords, yet what do we find? Far from being damaged by their notoriety, both the Sun and the News of the World seem to be positively thriving on it. The Star's circulation is static to falling. The Sun and the News of the World are putting on circulation. Similarly, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror and the Sunday People—fierce rivals of the Sun and the News of the World—have also gained readers. The message may be uncomfortable, but it is perfectly clear. Millions of our fellow citizens are only too eager to read stories which they claim to find distasteful in themselves or acquired in distasteful ways.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may ask a question.

Lord Denham


The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I must ask the question. If the noble Lord the Leader of the House or someone else chooses to move that I am out of order, that is his affair. However, is it the case that the noble Lord's paper, the Star, tried to link up with Sunday Sport?

Lord Stevens of Ludgate

My Lords, I might have lost my place if I had not been ready for that question. We did enter into an arrangement with the Sunday Sport. I am glad to have the opportunity to explain. The basis of our arrangement was this. We took a shareholding in the Sunday Sport. The arrangement was that we would make the Star a more lively paper. We succeeded. However, I chose the wrong editor. The editor left after seven weeks. It was quite clear that the paper he produced was not what he was briefed to produce and he therefore departed. It was a very unsatisfactory episode. If noble Lords have read the Sunday Sport—it has had the largest percentage rise in circulation of any Sunday newspaper over the last year—they will have noticed that during the period of our link up the Sunday Sport improved, believe it or not, because the basis of the transaction was that one of our editors went into the Sunday Sport to clean it up. As soon as the arrangement was discontinued, he left the paper; it then became what it was before. I shall be happy to supply the noble Earl with copies of the paper to prove my point.

Although one can share some of the public disquiet over a few newspapers, the problem is not quite as profound or straightforward as it is often depicted. Above all, as I pointed out earlier, we should constantly remind ourselves that the problem of press misbehaviour is not widespread. There are some 1,800 newspapers in Britain selling millions of copies every day or week. The overwhelming majority of them give their contented readers no cause for complaint. They should not be cause, however, for laws and regulations which stop the many peforming their invaluable and irreplaceable function. That said, clearly something will have to be done to curb the excesses of the irresponsible. Demand for improvement, no matter how ambiguous, will not go away. The Government gave a clear warning on Friday that the press has little more than a year in which to put its own house in order or face the inevitability of legally imposed regulation. It is difficult to see how anyone within the industry could reasonably argue with that. I certainly do not.

At the moment, as noble Lords will know, the Press Council is engaged in a thorough review of its own operations with the aim of making a voluntary self-regulation within the industry more effective. However, the Press Council's prime function under its constitution is to protect the freedom of the press and not to investigate complaints. Even in 1988 there was a marked fall in complaints upheld against the national press—from 59 in 1987 to 40 last year, five of them against my papers. This review of the Press Council must succeed. I would urge my fellow chairmen and proprietors to do what they can to ensure that success.

One of the main reasons we have reached this current pass is that some chairmen have been reluctant to dictate how their newspapers should operate. To do so would immediately give rise to charges of editorial interference, often—such is the contrariness of life—from the very people who now criticise us for not being strict enough on editors. However, it is, in my opinion, our job to set standards.

Another reason, alas, is that some chairmen seem happy to tolerate, even to endorse, any editorial behaviour so long as the circulation is not adversely affected. I am not entirely sure what the solution to this problem is. The main criticism appears to come from another place and not from the general public. The general public are buying more of the so-called down market newspapers and, as I have indicated, their preferences show that they want more of the same rather than less. Is it our function to make a qualitative judgment for them, or should we let them have what they want?

By my judgment some newspapers have lowered standards too much and on these grounds alone—quite apart from the beneficial effect that I believe it might have on our papers if others were forced to raise their standards—I recommend some form of voluntary control. A really effective Press Council may be the answer; but any voluntary body must have respect.

I note the proposed government review of the press. I have no doubt that the chairman of that review, who in my view should be totally independent and not from the Press Council, will obtain not only the views of the public but also those of the industry. The review should include consideration of the laws of defamation and the possibility of allowing judges rather than juries to adjudicate in libel actions. Whatever the conclusions of the review, self regulation based on self discipline and a sense of responsibility is the only right and proper course in a free society such as ours. I believe that newspapers will respond positively to the challenges that lie ahead. The alternative is the loss of freedom of the press.

3.33 p.m.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, has had the courage to come here this afternoon. I only wish he could persuade some of his fellow proprietors who are Members of this House to take part in these debates. Most of the work of defending the liberties of the press is undertaken here by journalists and not by proprietors. Let him be assured that nobody will ever criticise a proprietor for interfering with editorial freedom when he tells his editors that they must maintain the highest standards. It is only an interference with editorial freedom if a proprietor tells his editors to adopt low standards in the interests of circulation. Those of us who have worked in newspapers all our lives know that the wages of sin is increased circulation.

Our debate has been pre-empted. I had thought that today would be the beginning of a sharply focused national discussion on our anxieties about the press and the press's own anxieties about its relations with Parliament and government. However, this is not the start. It is rather the climax of several recent debates in and out of Parliament. The problem now is not to describe the shortcomings and anxieties of the press, but rather to look at what remedial action can be taken. That something which both the previous speakers have done.

Nobody ever supposed that we should spend our time examining the cases presented in the 35th annual report of the Press Council which, thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, is the nominal reason for our debate today. We have all read the cases within the report with interest, but it would be as dangerous to comment on the council's decision as it would be to comment on the judgment of an ordinary court on the basis of a short newspaper report. That being so, it seems remarkable how many newspapers taken to the council have got off in the end or have found that the complaint was not pursued. Perhaps having made their complaint and let off steam in that way people were quite happy. Even those tabloids most regularly excoriated in the best circles were by no means always condemned.

There is one page that I should recommend your Lordships to read. It is an hilarious account of the sin-laden Sun bringing the saintly Independent before the council for printing every single letter of a four letter word. The Sun thought that if the paper had been satisfied only to print the initial letter and three dots everybody would have known what it meant and offence would have been avoided. However, the council agreed that the Independent had good reasons for printing the word out, so the Sun was disappointed.

The chief precursor of our debate today came on Friday in another place as the dreaded right of reply Bill was approaching its inevitable demise and it was being boldly prophesised that Mr. Brown's privacy Bill would also shortly die the same death. But the failure of these Bills is not a discharge for the press. It is merely a reprieve, a breathing spell, for the press to put its own house in order. If it does not use that time well, similar Bills will be introduced and will pass into law.

As a newspaperman I have seldom found Ministers showing much insight in their criticisms of the press, but Mr. Renton framed the indictment exactly when he said that he sympathised with the concern about the excesses of the national press, particularly the tabloid press—concern about doorstepping, about intrusion into private lives, about the system of trick questioning, about taking secret photographs and about harassing ordinary people especially at times of distress when they are least able to cope. Thus the Government announced their plans for a non-governmental review of the general issue of privacy and related matters. Newspapers have been given a year or two to clean up their act, to use the Minister's phrase. If they do not do so Parliament will certainly return to the issue, as Mr. Renton promised.

The Government need not lift a finger. All they have to do is to see that a Private Member's Bill is being properly amended and to let it through. I am sure that a Bill of that kind would not be blocked in this House, only subjected to sympathetic revision. Newspaper owners and journalists must not think that the Government threat is exaggerated. This is one of those rare reforms ardently desired today by all sides in politics. Its adherents are sworn to continue their struggle. There is only one way in which legislation can be averted, and that is by making a reality of the self-regulation which the newspapers now enjoy and neglect. The Press Council has never had sufficient funds to do its job with both speed and efficiency, though things have improved in recent years. But its failure to preserve standards is not to be blamed on its staff, its chairman or on the council itself.

No regulatory body in a self-regulated industry can be effective if some of the members resist the ethical implications of the regulations. It cannot be effective unless the spirit and not just the letter of the decisions is accepted. Newspapers, with rare exceptions, have complied with the rule that they publish adverse findings, but these are no penalty. These findings, carefully expressed as they are, do not upset the readers, do not put off advertisers and they do not affect the social status of the publisher. It was the social status of the publisher which Randolph Churchill effectively attacked. He spoke of one noble Lord as being the "pornographer royal".

The few national newspapers which are the subject of so much bitter complaint today continue to do most of the things which the Press Council has condemned over the past three decades. They yield to the temptations that we have all had and which some of us did not always resist. I worked for half my life at the intellectual or carriage end of the trade and for the other half at the rough end. I am not proud of everything that I did in my youth while working on popular newspapers. I am not so optimistic about the possibilities of improvement but neither am I without hope.

The industry has realised—even the Newspaper Publishers Association has realised—that the Press Council, which has low prestige, must be reformed and given ample funds and new energies. It can no longer shrink behind a faint and minimum profile. It must become known nationally and win the respect of politicians, journalists and newspaper managers.

Already the industry has prepared for its revivification by appointing Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, QC. He is a great lawyer and, even better, a great warm-hearted human being with concern for both the well-being of society and the freedom of the individual. If the press has any intention of achieving genuine self-regulation, then Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper is the man to clarify their needs and lead them through the difficulties.

I share the aversion of the noble Lords, Lord McGregor and Lord Stevens, to control of the press by law. There is no way of legally curbing the excesses of delinquent newspapers without curbing and cribbing the vital work of the best newspapers. Such work is essential to the well-being of any decent society and to the health of any democratic system.

The noble Lord, Lord McGregor, and I do not want a Press Council with teeth. The idea of being able to impose fines is ridiculous. There is no fine that one can levy on a newspaper which can give away a single prize of £1 million in a competition; which can spend millions of pounds on promotion; and which, without a public tear or a tremor on the stock exchange, can suffer the costs and damages of a libel action which amount to a king's ransom.

Like the noble Lord, I put hope on a code of conduct being evolved which can win general acceptance. It will not be easy to frame such a code. Privacy is one of the problems with which the Government are especially concerned and it was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stevens. As Mr. Blom-Cooper said last night in his lecture at the City University, it is not easy to devise criteria for impermissible disclosures by spelling out the right balance between the individual citizen's interest in being let alone, and the legitimate public interest in finding out. For example, how far are disclosures about a person's private life relevant to his public role?

The Press Council is conducting a review of the changes which its constitution or practices may need. No changes can be made without the consent of the founding and funding bodies; the main associations of the newspaper industry. In a preface to the annual report of the work of the Press Council carried out under his predecessor, Mr.Blom-Cooper said: These bodies have indicated their warm support for the review and clearly want to see emerge a re-invigorated Press Council. The need is to construct a Press Council that responds more actively to social conditions, in which the public is increasingly hostile to some of the outpourings of some sections of the press. It is in that spirit that the review will have to be conducted by the council and perceived by the expectant public". Change can be effective only when certain free newspapers use their freedom to raise their own standards and follow the best newspaper traditions. They are traditions which include vigour, candour, impudence and occasionally even sensationalism. But their owners and editors must understand that if they do not raise their own standards some of that freedom will be taken away by law and the loss to the delinquent papers will be shared by the vast majority of newspapers of whose present standards the nation can well be proud.

3.45 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Manchester

My Lords, I am pleased to draw to your Lordships' attention the fact that the time indicator read "0" when the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, began speaking as it did when he finished. Perhaps the same will be true for me. I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, whose speech I believed to be honest and courageous, especially when he said that during the time that he worked in popular journalism he did things of which he was not necessarily proud. Perhaps many of us can look back in our careers and say something similar.

I appreciate that the debate is concentrated on the report of the Press Council and particularly the climate of public anxiety about specific instances of intrusion into privacy. However, I should like to widen the debate a little and think of the role of the press generally as regards the picture which it conveys to its readers of our society and the world in which we live. Deep issues lie behind any discussion of the press. We are concerned with issues of truth and the way in which it is presented in our society. I need hardly say that in the religious tradition from which I come truth is fudamentally important. Much is said in the Bible about truth. It ranges from what was said by the prophets of old, and how on occasions it was costly for them to stand for what they saw as being the truth, to the words of Jesus, who said: You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free". In concentrating on the role of the press in communicating truth I do not attempt to deny one of its functions; it is to entertain. Its functions are to inform, educate and entertain. Any newspaper which tried to continue simply by informing and educating and forgot its function to entertain would not last for very long. The problem is that today large sections of the popular press have gone overboard on the function to entertain and have forgotten the information and educational functions which ought to operate at all levels of the press.

In that context, I should like to take issue with the mover of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord McGregor. It is not that we are so deeply concerned with a small number of those who abuse press privileges but rather, I believe, that the issue goes a great deal wider. The cases which come before the Press Council are only the tip of iceberg. People are concerned about the role of newspapers in today's modern society. For example, I have only to walk into your Lordships' Library to see a display of papers which I seldom see. The popular papers are spread out alongside the quality papers. I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the picture of the world and what is important as given in the popular press is totally different from the picture which is so often given in the quality papers. I do not suggest that the quality papers are beyond reproach nor that the so-called "populars" do not do a good job in certain directions. However, often the issues which matter in the world are completely and utterly distorted.

Yet we all know that newapapers are important at every level of society. I am always impressed when, wherever I serve in Britain, people say that the local paper is a dreadful local rag but they all read it. By doing so they obtain a picture of what is happening in their local community, so those papers are vitally important. We need to see freedom within the widest possible limits extended to the press today as to other sections of British society. Incidentally, I believe that the debate over the Salman Rushdie affair has raised issues of freedom of expression in a particularly acute form and is making many people think much more deeply about it.

I move on from that to say that we should all be more conscious of how vital is the role of an editor, whether of a national daily or a weekly, in these days. Editors have to be very tough and have to take very difficult decisions. I was reminded of that when reading the explanation given by the editor of the Daily Mirror on his decision to publish those harrowing pictures of the Hillsborough soccer ground disaster. He said: A newspaper has one overriding duty—beyond that of being popular, selling itself or providing entertainment, It is to tell the truth, especially when it is a difficult and painful truth to tell. That is what we did on Monday morning. I don't pretend to know all the answers and I certainly don't pretend that we did not cause pain. But we did tell all our readers what happened, what will happen again if we ignore what occurred and what the terrible consequences were of years of neglect and disinterest by the football authorities, local councils, police and government". That was his decision. I do not necessarily endorse that but I believe that what he says about the need for truth and the functions of truth has an important message. I personally wish that some of the pictures available of what happened to SWAPO and civilian victims of South African defence force; during the events which followed 1st April had been published in our national press because that would have brought home to people some of the events which have happened. Incidentally, I am told on reliable information that some of those pictures would have been published by a certain national daily had it not been for the aftermath of the argument about what happened at Hillsborough and the publication of those pictures.

Therefore, I believe that loyalty to the truth, this very important function of newspapers, is immensely difficult to follow for those working in this field. It can only be achieved and maintained if there is a real interest in society as a whole in the newspaper industry and a recognition of what the industry is there to do. In that context, I believe that we all know that it is not simply what the papers print that really matters but also the weight of the type and the prominence given. That shows readers what the editor or proprietor of the newspaper in question feels to be important in the world in which we live.

I am sure your Lordships are all aware of the familiar story of the bishop who went across the Atlantic in the days when people sailed across the Atlantic. He was guarding himself against the press. When members of the press swarmed on board he was very careful and guarded in his replies and when asked, "Are you going to visit any nightclubs while you are in New York?" he replied, "Are there any nightclubs in New York?" very innocently. On the following day he was horrified to see the perfectly accurate headline, "Bishop's first question: Are there any nightclubs in New York?" Therefore, we need to examine the pressures which there are on people to distort the truth.

I believe that that is something for society in general and is a barrier to truthful reporting. One of the barriers is quite obviously the whole area of the abuse of press freedom, distortion and intrusion into personal affairs brought about by a failure of certain newspapers to use their freedom in the right way. That is one way in which truth easily becomes distorted.

The other subject of national debate is the area of restrictions on press freedom possibly brought about by the Government themselves. Those restrictions can go right against the right in a democratic society of people really to know what is happening.

Perhaps I may say a brief word about those two areas: the failure in responsibility among members of the press themselves; and, secondly, the danger of too many Government restrictions clamping down on our right to know. We all have personal experience of the abuse of press freedom and misuse of the power which the press has. I should like to give one particular experience, which comes from the Lambeth Conference last year. Perhaps I may say that one reason why I believe that the debate goes much wider than a small minority of those who abuse press freedom is because I do not enjoy being told by visitors from overseas that they are appalled at the poor standards of our press and newspapers in this country. That may be a sweeping generalisation but it comes from many people.

At the Lambeth Conference a group of Australian bishops wrote a letter to the Lambeth Daily on the reporting of the first week of the conference, in these terms: Despite a generous allocation of column inches, the substantial part of last week's reporting bore next to no resemblance to the conference as we have experienced it…We frankly have a suspicion that this failure of the secular press to 'get it right' may result from the tendency of some journalists to write to a pre-conceived formula, from which they are unable to free themselves, perhaps under an unconscious but understandable pressure of need to fulfil their own gloomy pre-Lambeth prophecies". The worst instance of that at the Lambeth Conference was the disgraceful treatment by the popular press of a very carefully worded resolution about the struggle in southern Africa. As your Lordships may remember, the Lambeth Bishops said that they supported those who were consistently in favour of non-violent methods in southern Africa but they understood that in certain circumstances, when all other means had been exhausted, some people would turn to methods of violent resistance. The headline appeared among popular newspapers, "Bishops bless terror". They did no such thing and that headline was a gross abuse of press freedom and responsibility.

One is bound to say that poor standards in the press are the result of the pattern of ownership in Britain today. I believe that any inquiry set up must be deeply concerned with this question of ownership. What can one expect from an influence on the press, however much editors say that proprietors do not interfere, when one reads, for example in Harold Evan's book Good Times, Bad Times, what Rupert Murdoch said when he made a bid for the Observer back in 1976? Evans said that he was cynical in a droll way as he described what he would have done with the Observer: All that third world garbage would have gone. It doesn't sell papers. So would Trelford". Trelford was editor. Therefore, I believe that the question of ownership is absolutely vital when considering the standards of the press.

What about this quite disgraceful sniping at the BBC which takes place in certain papers today which undoubtedly, when one looks at the pattern of ownership, have an axe to grind? I hardly need to remind your Lordships that the BBC, with all its deficiencies, is the envy of the world as a means of communication and presentation of truth in many different fields in our society.

Therefore, patterns of ownership are important, as is the element of fierce competition which goes on in the world of the popular press. It seems to me that there are many fallacies in this field of competition. It is an illusion to suppose that competition necessarily means greater choice or, indeed, that it preserves quality. In many spheres it can mean that. We are all grateful and make use of resources arising from competition carried out through advertising, which enables us to buy things more cheaply in the shops. However, when one applies that argument to other sides of our national life, then it begins to look very different and, as regards the press, the struggle for more and more circulation can depress the quality in a way which is deeply damaging in this country.

Why? Human nature is rather like Gresham's Law: the bad can drive out the good. As we have already been reminded, some newspapers thrive on notoriety. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens, said that millions are only too eager to read stories which they claim to deplore—of course they are. That is human nature. However, your Lordships will come across many examples where people read the stories but would still deplore the system which produces them. It seems to me that that is the voice to which we should be listening.

The other main threat to truthful reporting comes from Government restrictions. That is something about which we should be extremely cautious. I am sure that none of your Lordships enjoyed reading the comments of the director of the World Press Freedom Committee in Washington about American reaction to Britain's new Official Secrets Act, which was one of shock. He said: 'The country where our freedom began seems to be ending its own freedom', he said. The plans to reform the Official Secrets Act would be 'completely unconstitutional' in the United States", because the Americans put their emphasis on freedom of information.

I conclude by giving a very warm welcome to the announcement by Mr. Renton in the debate in the other place last week about the setting up of a commission to look at some of these matters—the law of privacy and related matters—and I express the hope that the related matters will indeed be widely drawn. We want a wide-ranging, independent commission to look at these matters which will include questions of ownership.

Finally, I believe that in Britain today we need more discussions across the disciplines about these major ethical questions that face us in the mass media and particularly in our newspapers. It is sad to relate that I have had some experiences in my past ministry where attempts to get journalists together to consider these matters have been strongly resisted. They are very good at telling other people how they should conduct their lives but perhaps not so good at listening to what is said to them. Perhaps that could be improved.

4.1 p.m.

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester. As he well knows, I nearly always agree with what he has to say to us. I particularly endorse his wise words about the importance of the concentration of the ownership of the press in a very small number of hands and, if I may say so, sometimes in hands that are not all that clean.

It is also a pleasure to participate in a debate with the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick. I enjoyed his words but I feel that he was unnecessarily modest in repudiating his early career and saying that he was not all that proud of it. He has every reason to be proud. I used to buy the newspaper in Manchester which he edited. I actually paid for it; and I carefully read it. I can assure noble Lords that, somewhat unusually, it was in English! Nowadays there are few papers that one can say that about.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene to say that I was speaking about the time when I was a boy reporter and not when I was an editor.

Lord Winstanley

Of course, my Lords, but the fact the noble Lord's papers were in good English was unusual. I think that highly professional sub-editors now seem to be an extinct species when I see some editions of the so-called quality press.

I am sure we are all grateful to my noble friend Lord McGregor of Durris for giving us the opportunity to debate this immensely important subject and to do so at a time when it is extremely topical. Indeed, I cannot immediately recall any time during the lifetime of this Government when a debate of this kind would not have been topical. This subject has remained topical throughout the lifetime of this Government and it will continue to be topical for a very long time.

I have two reasons for intervening in this debate. First, I have spent much of my life professionally as a journalist—not just on television but in writing for the press. Secondly, I am perhaps a little unusual in being one of the very few people in your Lordship's House, if not the only one, to have taken a national newspaper before the Press Council and to have done so successfully. It was an enjoyable experience. The newspaper concerned was the Daily Mail. That seems to be appropriate because it is my view that it was Lord Northcliffe with the Daily Mail at the end of the last century who began the downward spiral of press standards by abandoning the old, somewhat elitist notion that a newspaper should appeal to the intelligent few. He frankly, openly and knowingly appealed to the unintelligent many, knowing that that would increase circulation. Therefore, it was perhaps appropriate that it was the Daily Mail.

My complaint was based on a report in the Daily Mail about a decision by Members of another place to increase the secretarial allowance which was headlined: MPs vote themselves more money". The report contained several comments about more money for their wives or girlfriends who they could take away on attractive conferences and so on. I engaged in a dispute on the matter with the then editor, and in association with me at the time was Mr. Michael Foot. He was not in favour of taking the complaint before the Press Council because he did not believe in the Press Council. I understood his reasons. He was extremely wary of any kind of control being placed upon the press and I entirely agreed with him about that. Nevertheless, I felt that since the Press Council existed we might as well have a go at it and find out how it worked.

The experience was extremely interesting. The editor of the Daily Mail—I cannot remember who he was—found it to be an extremely unpleasant and discomfiting experience. He was angry and resentful at having to sit at the inquiry all day, give evidence and wait to hear an adjudication against the Daily Mail for publishing an improper report which was entirely misleading and which the paper then had to correct.

Like others, I had always regarded the Press Council as something of a toothless creature, and I still do. As Mr. Blom-Cooper says, he wants it to stay toothless. I believe he is right. I do not want to see the Press Council with teeth. I have read every word of the report. Some of it is excellent. Chapter 1 merely consists of Mr. Blom-Cooper's foreword, which is excellent, though I think the punctuation could have been vastly improved with good sub-editing. Chapter 2 merely consists of the facts and figures of a number of cases considered. However, Chapter 3 is an analysis of all the cases to come before the Press Council during to year and it makes appalling and distressing reading.

There is case after case in which the journalists have clearly behaved abominably and in an unpardonable way, with intrusions into people's privacy and all sorts of other offences. There are offences against taste—I do not think we can legislate to improve the taste of journalists—and all sorts of infringements against decent and normal behaviour. Over and over again one reads of such cases but at the end of each the complaint is rejected. A complaint about outrageous behaviour and the publication of a totally false report by the Sunday Sport is rejected, and so on. However, occasionally one stumbles across a complaint being upheld. On looking into it, one finds that the case is not worse than the others which were rejected; it is merely a case that appears to infringe a particular rule that the Press Council has adopted in order to make its work easier and to have some kind of base line.

Speaking as someone who was a professional journalist, I have to say that reading Chapter 3 of this report makes me feel deeply ashamed of being a life member of the National Union of Journalists. I say that because I believe that the only hope for the future is not in legislation—the noble Lord is absolutely right; we do not want legislation—but we might have it if the papers do not improve. How can they improve? They can improve only if the journalists themselve improve; but how can we hope for that and what can we do about it?

My noble friend suggests that those who own the press and those who have power within the newspapers should issue orders to their employees to change their editorial policies and make their journalists behave better. I do not place any great hope in that. I hope it will be done, but I doubt it. I am bound to say quite sincerely to the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, that, although I agree with much of what he said and that any kind of legislation or strict controls would be dangerous, I do not honestly think that his speech encouraged me to believe that somehow the owners of newspapers will take steps which might in fact reduce their circulations.

This is all about circulations. We live in a strange world, do we not? If the facts given to me are correct, more people every Sunday buy the News of the World, and presumably read it, than buy all the other Sunday papers put together. That makes one worried about standards of public taste, but what can we do about that? I do not know. I am not so worried about the political influence. I well recollect at the 1945 general election, in which I took a close interest and an active part, that a Labour Government were returned with a large majority. Of the people who voted Labour at that election I would estimate that 99 out of 100 were reading newspapers every day which told them to vote Conservative. Therefore, I am not so worried about the political influence of the press, but I am deeply worried about its constant influence and undesirable effect on the lives of ordinary people. What can we do? What is the hope for the future? It is certainly not in legislation, but perhaps in better behaviour.

I advance one suggestion that has been in my mind for some time, but I doubt whether all my noble friends on these Benches will agree with me. What can the law do? In civil law when someone brings an action against a paper for libel they win and the paper pays damages but does the same thing again the next week and the week after. It is true that when one particular paper had to pay out large amounts three times within a month it began to think a little carefully. It seems that when a newspaper is conducting a campaign to increase circulation and it offends and prints what is proved in court to be lies about an individual, substantial damages are awarded. The paper pays up happily and then carries on in the same old way.

I hope that we might consider a situation in which a judge, having found for the plaintiff in such a case, will be able not only to award damages but also to order the paper to suspend publication of one, two, three or four issues.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, what about the readers?

Lord Winstanley

My Lords, if that happened, I feel that the newspapers might listen.

The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, asks about the readers. The readers cannot be suspended from buying the newspaper, but at least it could be made unavailable, and that would affect the paper. I know that there are dangers in steps of that kind. But I should like to see some changes, and that is one step that would bring about change. The real answer is for the public to change and buy better papers—or what we think are better papers—and at least not to buy the newspapers that we consider to be very bad. We cannot do anything about that by legislation, and neither can we do anything about it in the debate.

Possibly we can set a better example here in your Lordships' House. It is not a matter for the noble Earl, but for the Library Committee. I sometimes wonder why the authorities in our House pay so much money for so many copies of the Sun. I accept that we should have one copy so that we can have a look at it, but there should not be many copies. We should think a little more about having more copies of the Guardian and the Independent. I do not mind a great many copies of the Daily Telegraph because, though I do not agree with its politics, it has very high standards of journalism and reporting. It also has very wide coverage. I believe that The Times has changed greatly in recent years. I am not sure that the tables in our Library should always be absolutely covered with copies of The Times. At any time of the day any noble Lord can go into the Library and find as many copies of The Times as he wishes, but he will search in vain for a copy of the Independent or the Guardian because we do not get enough of them. Change can only be brought about by influence, and perhaps we should start using that in our own Library.

I echo the words of my noble friend Lord McGregor of Durris: unless journalists improve their behaviour they are possibly tempting or encouraging governments to introduce legislation. Whatever that legislation, I should be opposed to it whatever government introduced it. I should like to see the need for that legislation disappear, but that can only happen if journalists themselves and those who control them take the necessary action.

4.13 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, by chance I appear to be the fourth successive speaker in this debate who has had connection with journalism in Manchester. My experience there included a major scoop. I was the first person to have published in an article the secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Pact that has recently been printed in Lithuania, thus showing that what Manchester thinks today Lithuania will think tomorrow, but only after a lapse of some decades.

I believe that the right reverend Prelate was right to remind us that one can interpret this Motion much more broadly than a mere consideration of this report, because the question of the press, its content and freedoms, is a perennial one. I would not altogether agree with some of his own strictures on it. It is true that the United States has constitutional safeguards against intervention by a public authority. However, there are so many other factors that detract from the quality of the American press that no one who has spent any time living in the United States could possibly not miss the wider coverage and greater variety of the British press and above all the far wider coverage—with the single exception of the New York Times—of events in any part of the world outside the North American continent.

We must look at each individual country and ask what are the merits and the defects and how far these can be related to press structure. The difficulty is that all of us are convinced that freedom of the press is a good thing but we interpret it in different ways. Historically it has been interpreted in different ways. In the course of the great democratic revolutions of the 19th century when there was clamour, among other things, for freedom of the press, what was meant fundamentally was freedom of opinion. The revolutionaries wanted the right to say that the Government are a bad government or that there should be a better one. They wanted to say that the Government should not have done this or that. As regards the agitation taking place in China, the protesters are asking for very much the same thing.

On the other hand, freedom can be interpreted as the freedom of journalists to behave in ways which would be considered deplorable by any other section of the public. If any Member of this House were to pursue a private citizen up his garden path or poke a camera through his window, it would be considered reprehensible. The difficulty about the Press Council and the report we are discussing is that under its present terms of reference it is necessarily restricted to what is actually printed. As the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said, if one reads all these cases and how they came about, one learns a good deal about what people thought objectionable in print, but to only a limited extent does one learn what they consider objectionable about the way in which the material was obtained.

In that regard I found the report very uninformative because it gives no dates for the items complained of so there is no possibility of checking them for oneself with the newspaper file. No dates are given as to when a matter was looked into; when the newspaper was informed of the conclusions; and when, if at all, it printed a correction or an apology. Mr. Blom-Cooper has to improve the presentation of the Press Council's activities quite apart from his plans to improve its effectiveness. It was made clear in the very helpful opening speech made by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, that Mr. Blom-Cooper intends to look at the subject as regards structure and function.

In this respect I ask my noble friend the Minister a specific question. Members of another place were told on Friday that the Government are to have an inquiry of some kind into the issues that have been raised in two Private Member's Bills. What is the purpose of the inquiry; what will be its terms of reference and how does it relate to the proposed inquiry by Mr. Blom-Cooper? One can have too many people looking at the same subject at the same time and then arriving at different or even conflicting conclusions.

The comment that one must conclude with is the one that I have already made. We must continue to distinguish between freedom of the press and freedom of behaviour by journalists. I agree that that can hardly be done by legislation because one cannot legislate for good behaviour. One can legislate if the behaviour turns into a criminal offence such as breaking and entering.

Generally speaking, journalists are usually too clever to indulge in criminal activities in pursuit of information. Therefore something like a professional code of conduct is necessary. It must be one which the profession works out for itself. Whether the Press Council can assist, particularly as the National Union of Journalists does not support the Press Council at the moment, or whether it is a matter for the National Union of Journalists and the Institute of Journalists, is not for someone outside the profession to say. However, the public would be relatively happy if the press could cope with these intrusions into private life, and perhaps especially into private grief, and leave, despite what the right reverend Prelate has said, the discipline of the market in its various forms to deal with what newspapers actually print.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Hemingford

My Lords, as a journalist and an editor it is my view that there is some danger in the present hue and cry over press standards that we shall get the matter out of proper prospective. I say that while being grateful for the measured approach which many noble Lords have adopted in what they have said. However, there is a tendency, when a ball starts to roll, to be tempted to go too far. I hope that we shall not go so far as the Empress Dowager of China who 90 years ago said: As newspapers only serve to excite the masses to subvert the present order of things and the editors concerned are composed of the dregs of the literary classes, no good can be served by the continuation of such dangerous instruments and we hereby command the entire suppression and sealing up of all newspapers published within the Empire, while the editors connected with them are to be arrested and punished with the utmost rigour of the law". Sometimes people might be too tempted by an approach of that kind.

Obviously, one has to admit that the press itself has not put its case at all well. In particular we have allowed ourselves to be represented as people pursuing their own vested interests regardless of the interests of others. In Mrs. Thatcher's Britain it is a mistake to allow that label to be pinned on you, as many noble and learned Lords have been reminded recently. I believe that the legal profession has put its case against reform rather badly, and I hope that the press will learn from its mistake. Of course there is a fundamental difference between the law and the press. The law is a closed profession in which disciplinary measures can be taken against those who break the rules: the press is not, and must not be allowed to become, a closed shop.

The reality is that the principal freedoms which the press desires to secure are those of the ordinary citizen—freedom of speech and expression, freedom to be partisan and freedom to comment. The problem arises over what should happen if those freedoms are abused and how one is to decide whether or not they have been abused. The great danger is that the remedy may be more damaging than the abuse. The noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, to whom we are indebted for being able to debate this issue today, has often said in the House that the price of a free press is some bad newspapers. Bernard Levin was saying much the same in one of his splendid columns a couple of years ago when he wrote that free speech was for swine and liars as well as for upright and honest men and that any legally permissible view, however repugnant, was less dangerous promulgated than banned. It is wise, I believe, to bear those injunctions in mind when considering reform of the Press Council which everyone in the newspaper industry is now doing.

My earnest hope, like that of other noble Lords who have spoken, is that the review of press law which the Government have announced will result in no special law for the press. We wish to be judged as any other citizen would be judged and not as a special interest group or a closed profession. It was a very sad day when, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, journalism was for the first time put in a special category in British law. We should go no further down that road. What we could do is break into the vicious circle which exists to an extraordinary degree in Britain. It runs something like this. One gives as little information as possible; the press is able to print only what it can get; and one can then use its inaccuracies as an excuse for giving it no more information. This is what Ralph Nader, the distinguished American campaigner, had in mind when he said at a freedom of information meeting a year or two ago: You must be very excited to be living in a country where the exercise of common candour is called courage". I may be the only one of your Lordships present in the Chamber today who has appeared as an editor before the Press Council. It happened 16 or 17 years ago and I was found to be partly at fault. I felt that the verdict was unfair to my paper but I printed it fully giving it a prominence at least as great as that of the report upon which it commented. I did add a short note in the leader column explaining why I felt it was unjust. While I would not claim to be particularly hard bitten, I do not think that I am particularly averse to controversy either. I certainly did not enjoy the experience of appearing before the council. A great deal of work had to be done to gather material to put before it. The oral hearing itself, though not intimidating, was not an occasion that one would relish repeating. I mention that trivial case only because it is absolutely typical of cases taken up by the Press Council. The great majority are dealt with straightforwardly by editors. Indeed there have been only 10 occasions in 35 years on which editors have refused to publish the findings of the Press Council. That is something else to bear in mind.

I am not, however, saying that all is well and that no remedies are required. Editors are inclined to be far too defensive where corrections are concerned. Some years ago I stumped around the country trying to persuade my fellow editors to give greater promin- ence to the existence of the Press Council and to invite aggrieved readers to make use of it. The response, I am afraid, was disappointing. A common view was that it would encourage troublemakers and lead to a good deal of time-wasting correspondence. The reluctance of editors to make proper apology when they have erred is curious considering how disarming a full-blooded apology can be. Most of them must have sat down to write a thundering denunciation of some public figure or other only to find that he or she has apologised and has to be congratulated rather than condemned.

I believe that there is a degree of complacency about current practice but that it is perfectly true, as some noble Lords have said, that the chief offenders are few in number, though perhaps wide in circulation. The Association of British Editors, of which I am the secretary, conducted a survey last year which showed that the great majority of editors were very conscious of their responsibility to get things right and to correct what they got wrong. Its chairman, James Bishop, said at the time: Editors are naturally concerned to be on the best of terms with their readers, and they won't be if they are seen to be acting unfairly or with no regard for the truth". The national newspapers which responded to the association's questionnaire all stressed the importance of getting things right first time and publishing corrections when they did not. One in four provincial editors said that he offered an unqualified right of reply to inaccurate or misleading reporting in his newspaper, and of the rest, all but 2 per cent. said that they did not carry contentious material at all and claimed to have informal policies that worked to the mutual satisfaction of both journalists and the public. It is not always easy to satisfy complainants. In its response the Daily Mail said that there was sometimes no telling what kind of satisfaction a complainant wanted; but it added: history says that we have almost always been able to accommodate people with complaints by showing a willingness to correct matters when they are plainly wrong and by not showing weakness in our replies and procedures when it is a contentious matter". I think that that last point is most important.

If there is room for improvement in the attitude of editors towards corrections and the Press Council, there is also a need for reform of the council itself. As noble Lords have heard, the council is already embarked upon a study of its procedures and I share the hopes which have already been expressed in that respect. Many interesting proposed changes have already been. mooted. Fundamentally, the need is to speed up the proceedings, to make much more noise about abuses of the freedoms to which I have referred, to upgrade the membership of the council so that its verdicts demand more respect and to avoid the kind of penalties and punishments as mentioned earlier in the debate, which will send everyone scurrying for the protection of the law. We must also strive for a consensus among journalists that those who publish lies or invent stories are beyond the pale. Here the public could play its part by not subsidising such behaviour.

I spend a good deal of time on the training of journalists, which is also important. However, like most training in British industry, it could be improved. But there are encouraging signs that employers are prepared to exercise their responsibility for it more energetically. Indeed, I came from a meeting only this morning at which I think that process was advanced. We should neither expect nor hope that journalism will court respectability to the point that it ceases to do its job. As that excellent and respectable journalist, Gerald Priestland, wrote: Journalists belong in the gutter because that is where the ruling classes throw their guilty secrets". A press so dull that it aroused no ire and hurt no feelings would not, I believe, be useful; but, although newspapers ought to be entertaining, they should not be produced as a branch of show business without regard for the truth. That balance has to be obtained not by statute or government fiat but by the ebb and flow of public opinion on the pebbles of the press.

4.32 p.m.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, the House will be indebted to the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, for having enabled this subject to be debated at a tragically opportune time. I must declare that I am not a newspaper journalist or a proprietor, and nor do I intend to write my memoirs. I approach the debate purely as a consumer of newspapers, both national and regional. In fact I believe that the regional and local newspapers in this country set a very high standard. Very often the news coming from Fort William or Fowey is of more interest, or even sometimes better presented, than some of the news which is presented in our national newspapers.

When it comes to taste, there is one very difficult problem facing newspapers, especially when a major tragedy is reported either in words or in picture form. I say that because there are times when the publication of a picture—I make no reference for the purpose of this debate to any particular picture—can draw attention to the hazards of a certain incident and the distress caused thereby. I am thinking here particularly of accidents. The very greatest care must be taken not to infringe bad taste or to cause unnecessary distress to relatives or close friends of the victim or victims concerned. It is not always easy to keep to the rules and within bounds in this respect. This most interesting report, The Press and the People, especially chapter 3 to which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, referred, highlights some extremely distressing cases. However, it is not for me as a layman to comment upon the credit or otherwise of the decisions taken. I am quite sure that the Press Council will have gone into such matters most carefully.

The noble Lord, Lord Hemingford, made one very important point regarding the training of journalists. Like many noble Lords, I have had certain dealings with the press. Journalists and reporters have a job to do, but some of them are unaccountably young. They come to interview one, no doubt with the best of intentions, but they seem at times to have no idea how to approach a subject. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will have some comments to make as regards any facilities which are being made available for an increase in the training of newspaper reporters, most of whom, I believe, do an excellent job. However, in some cases—and this is often the fault of the newspaper proprietor concerned—I believe that these young people are sent out on difficult assignments and distress can be caused as a result.

There is of course the question of priority of interests. What do readers really want'? Do they want to know the implications of what will happen to this country and other countries after 1992? Obviously the newspapers, other than the tabloids, will deal with such questions more fully. But do people want to learn about a spy scandal or any other scandal concerning a public figure? I rather think that some organs of the press are being rather naive in thinking that people want to learn the latter; it may be said that the former does not interest a great many people. I certainly hope that that is wrong.

I have spoken in this debate because I had a certain experience with a tabloid newspaper back in 1958. A very young and close relative of mine was invited to a family wedding. At the ago of two, she was alleged in a newspaper report to have drunk champagne. A headline appeared in that newspaper indicating that. Needless to say, she did not drink champagne. However, we had a visit from a member of the Temperence League reminding us of the contents of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933. Suffice to say that the newspaper concerned apologised. My reason for mentioning that incident is that, first, there was the accusation of breaking the law of the land and, secondly, if 18 years later she had drunk too much champagne people may have thought, "Well, if she did that at the age of two, no wonder she is like that".

I think that this debate impinges upon such matters. I am quite certain that many noble Lords and other people up and down the country have faced similar problems. I make no criticism of the young reporter concerned. Indeed, he had a job to do. But a humorous incident like that can lead to accusations being made against the relatives that the person concerned is breaking the law.

What will an inquiry bring about? We have the civil laws of libel and slander. What is reported is often one thing to one person and something else to another person, particularly if it is scandal. If it is something completely untrue there is recourse to the law.

When I go abroad I read not only the newspapers of this country but also those of other countries. I think that the standards of the press in this country on the whole are infinitely higher than those of some newspaper journals on the other side of the Atlantic, where appalling lapses of taste have taken place.

The debate has served a useful purpose, particularly at a time when there have been a number of major tragedies regarding which all organs of the press have come under criticism. However, I believe that on the whole they have acquitted themselves well.

4.42 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, we have listened to a series of very interesting speeches, including that by the noble Lord, Lord Auckland. In these matters affecting the press I usually turn for guidance to my noble friend Lord Dudley. On this occasion he may think my remarks somewhat temerarious, but doubtless he will treat them with his usual tolerance.

I think that we must agree that we are faced with an intrinsic problem of the utmost difficulty. It is 18 years since I started the first debate on pornography in the House. I laid it down at that time that we all dislike pornography, but we all dislike censorship also. That was the problem as I stated it 18 years ago. Indeed, my noble friend attended that debate. That is the problem today. I received a document this morning from a very gifted feminist group, the members of which are making yet another approach to this. Although I applaud their endeavour, I cannot say that they have finally solved the problem that has troubled us for so long.

There is little doubt that today we are faced with an issue even wider than pornography. Two years ago when opening a debate on the tabloid press I stated: 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".—[Official Report, 18/2/87; col. 1176.] That was two years ago. No one has disputed it in my presence since that time. I suppose that most people would be inclined to say that it was as true today as it was then.

My noble friend Lord Mishcon, winding up in his usual masterly fashion a year later a debate on press standards that I had opened, said in reference to much of the material: 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".—[Official Report, 13/1/88; col. 1330.] So spoke the noble Lord rather more than a year ago. I do not think that he would wish to retract that today. He may wish to go even further.

In previous debates I have brought forward examples of journalistic atrocities. I shall not weary the House with those today. I shall give just one example following the case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Auckland. I touched on it in an earlier debate. Not very long ago the News of the World carried a front page story about an alleged brawl in which I was involved, in the course of which I was supposed to have lashed out at a security guard. The thing was practically impossible. Apart from my age and debility, and no doubt the extraordinary fitness of this young fellow trained in karate and other arts, the fact is that there was a glass panel between me and him so the thing was total nonsense. It was just a lie. It was impossible to obtain what was called an apology. As I said earlier, I found it too expensive, not being Jeffrey Archer and not having my noble friend Lord Mishcon to advise me, to pursue it legally. Eventually, after a lot of argument, the newspaper printed my statement, but no correction or apology for a transparent lie. That is one aspect of the behaviour of the tabloid press, and it illustrates the problem that we have today.

I do not think that the quality press is completely devoid of guilt. There are papers that hover on the borderline, as one might say, of being tabloid or quality. What of the Daily Mail? What of the Daily Express, whose proprietor I was so pleased to hear today? (I must apologise for having interrupted him.) Roughly speaking, one can say that the quality press made no reference to Pamella and the other papers made no reference to anything else for a time. That is the broad distinction between them. The Daily Mail is serialising this lady's memoirs, so I do not think that the distinction can be drawn very clearly. However, we have a problem: there it is, this great evil, in front of us.

Two difficulties have cropped up in recent years in addition to what I call the fundamental difficulty of interfering with freedom of the press in the interests of trying to clean up the media. On the one hand, as recent debates of the House have shown, there is no confidence whatever in the attitude of the Government towards freedom of speech. There is a general recognition, at any rate in wide sections of society, that the Government are no friends to freedom of speech. To hand more power to them is therefore very repugnant to people of liberal mind.

If one looks at it from the point of view of the Government, there is great difficulty about interfering. I say nothing about the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, who is no doubt impeccable in these ways. Let us think of Mr. Murdoch for a moment. There he is, a gentleman—an American citizen these days—who controls one-third of our press. Everyone agrees—I have never found anybody who disagrees—that he is the gentleman who has dragged the press down a long way in recent years. It is asking for a kind of heroic sanctity on the part of Mrs. Thatcher that she should send for him and say, "Look here, you have to clean up your act". He might say, "I am doing all I can for you, I am representing you as the greatest woman in the history of the world—what more can I do?". She might say, "But unfortunately a number of good Conservative people are very upset about all this". He would say, "I have sacked the editor of the News of the World"—which I believe has happened—"because he brought too much sex into the paper". That I believe is factual. She might say, "Is there any less sex now?". He would say, "I should not say that, but the intention is there". That is the kind of dialogue, and it shows how unreal this is.

We have to consider what sort of pressure can be brought to bear. Previous discussions in the House—for example, debates that I have initiated—have shown that unless proprietors are tackled nothing whatever will happen. It is a question, first, of tackling them; and secondly, how one tackles them. Either there is the "softly softly" approach of the kind that I have indicated a little crudely today or there is some sanction. I think that there must be a sanction. We all agree that we want a stronger Press Council, one with teeth which can make things uncomfortable for newspaper proprietors. If they continue in their evil ways nothing will happen. Those are my thoughts.

4.49 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, this is the second occasion in the last two years on which the House has had the opportunity to discuss a report of the Press Council.

My noble friend Lord McGregor of Durris and I participated a little time ago in a similar debate which also took place at a time when sections of the British press were under severe criticism, which in our judgment was fully justified. Our debate today takes place at a time when there are indications that there is a majority in the House of Commons for some form of legislative action against the press. It is true that the Right of Reply Bill was derailed during its Report stage last Friday evening. But that was only because a minority of the House were able to delay proceedings until the Bill's time ran out at around 2.30 in the afternoon. The Protection of Privacy Bill which also has strong all-party support is still to come.

I accept at once, as one who is strongly opposed to both Bills, that the conduct of a section of the tabloid press has become entirely unacceptable. A number of newspapers have abused their power in a shameful fashion. The rights of the private citizen have been violated; stories have been invented and vendettas have been waged against citizens in no position to protect themselves. The Press Council has been seen to be weak and vacillating, quite unable to restore public confidence in its value and despised by that section of the press which behaves most abominably.

Let me give just two illustrations of this. We had a debate on exactly this subject in the House some time ago. After the arrest of Mr. Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper—a man who at his trial was convicted of 13 murders—the Press Council carried out a special review of the conduct of the press, in particular of allegations that substantial sums of money had been passed or offered to relatives of Mr. Sutcliffe. The council did this after the Queen's Deputy Private Secretary, in a letter to the mother of Mr. Sutcliffe's final victim, expressed Her Majesty's "sense of distaste" that such sums were being offered to his family and friends.

What was significant in this episode was not only the cold and deliberate fashion in which a number of newspapers violated the Press Council guidelines which had themselves been established after the Moors murders case. The central issue was the way in which the press responded to the criticism of the Press Council—a body on which they were represented. The Daily Mail, for instance, was censured for not only failing to disclose material plainly germane to the Press Council's report, but for having repeatedly been in contact with Mr. Sutcliffe's wife for over three months—and I quote the Press Council— setting out to deceive Mrs. Sutcliffe and for behaving in such a manner as artificially to create and sustain a cheque book journalism market in her story. Their explanation, said the Press Council, amounted to an admission of gross misconduct.

What was the response of the editor of the Daily Mail? He said that the Press Council's report was short term, short sighted and smug". He added that their criticism demonstrated that, Yet again the Press Council still does not truly understand the concept of a free press". That, my Lords, came from a man described as the present Prime Minister's favourite national newspaper editor. I wonder what her response would have been if the BBC had responded in a similar arrogant and contemptuous fashion to justified criticism of that kind.

Then there is the case of Mr. Murdoch's News of the World. Its legal manager, Mr. Douglas, himself a former member of the Press Council, denied that his newspaper had paid or would pay any money to the relatives of Mr. Sutcliffe. Unhappily for them, Mrs. Sutcliffe's solicitor demonstrated that the News of the World had offered £110,000. When taxed with this, Mr. Douglas said that he would not enter into any futher correspondence with the Press Council. Indeed he indicated that the council had no business reading his correspondence in the first instance.

Those two incidents and a similar one involving the Daily Express, together with countless others, show all too clearly what is the attitude of some Fleet Street managements to the Press Council. They are prepared to lie without hesitation and then to bluster. It is little wonder that the Press Council itself has become demoralised and that its critics—many of them reasonable men and women—have now persuaded themselves that only legislation can curb the excesses of a section of the tabloid press.

I wish now to explain why I believe that this view is entirely mistaken. One of the proposed remedies is a statutory press commission, the members to be appointed by the Home Secretary. An aggrieved citizen would be given a legally enforceable right to have what is described as a factually inaccurate statement corrected. Are we really prepared to contemplate a situation in which a government-appointed body is to be given powers of this kind—an authority that is not available in any other free society in the world?

It was argued in the House of Commons that this would help the little man. In some cases I have not the slightest doubt that it would. But what would happen is that it would be used by powerful interests, both in Government and in the private sector, to shackle a free press. There would be some carefully orchestrated complaints from dubious figures in the City and politicians anxious to frustrate the proper work of investigative journalists. It would be said that the press had behaved badly and that they had damaged their reputations. Then this commission of government-appointed nominees would presumably commence their inquiries. They would have to determine what was a factual inaccuracy—not quite so easy as the sponsor of the Bill believes, if I may say so. Then presumably they would have the power to order a correction in that newspaper.

I believe that the same criticism can be directed at the second Bill introduced by Mr. Browne. That is the Bill dealing with the right to privacy. Again, no doubt some ill-used private citizens would derive some benefit from such well meaning legislation. But the cost would be immense. We live in perhaps the most secretive society in the western world. Such legislation, if enacted, would make it still more secretive.

As I have indicated, I am firmly opposed to any form of legislation of this character. But I also accept that a policy of total inaction is unacceptable. Let me make two suggestions. First, as regards the Press Council, under its new chairman I think it should be given the opportunity to bring forward its own proposals for dealing with the present serious situation. Mr. Blom-Cooper has begun to do this, as we see from the speech he made recently, and I welcome that. However unless he receives the support of the entire British newspaper industry—and that includes Mr. Rupert Murdoch—his task will be impossible. If, for instance, the Sun is allowed to rubbish every adverse finding of the Press Council given against itself, public opinion will inevitably conclude that self-regulation is a farce.

Secondly, I think that Ministers also have some responsibility in the matter. They are keen, as we all know, to lecture broadcasters on what they perceive to be their failings. But they adopt a remarkably different attitude to the constant excesses of newspapers who support them passionately in their own editorial columns.

As we all know, one of the central problems we face at the moment is the consequences of Mr. Murdoch's ownership of a substantial part of the British press. He has done more than any other man to lower the standards of journalism in this country. The Sun is one of the nastiest newspapers published in any Western democracy. However, it is also commercially successful, so there has been a stampede by other tabloid newspapers to follow it down market. I believe that if the Prime Minister were to tell Mr. Murdoch that the conduct of his tabloid newspapers had become totally unacceptable to her, it would do more to stop journalistic standards falling still further than any short-term action by the Press Council.

I certainly welcome the announcement of an inquiry into current malpractices by the press. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I have some doubts about it. I should like to know, for instance, what the terms of reference of the inquiry will be. I am also slightly concerned that the inquiry members are to be given only 12 months to carry out their work. Nevertheless, I think that, given the degree of parliamentary concern in the House of Commons, it is right to set up such an inquiry.

My own view remains clear. I believe that it is essential to stop this country drifting into the acceptance of press laws which would be administered by the nominees of Ministers. In that course lies immense damage to our democracy. However, I fear that we shall get such laws unless national newspaper proprietors, led by Mr. Murdoch, start taking their responsibilities seriously. They must demonstrate a will to change the deplorable conduct which has brought us to our present condition.

5.1 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I wonder how much of noble Lords' speeches in a debate dealing with the freedom of the press, will be reported in the press of tomorrow. I shall look with interest at such publications as are presided over by Mr. Murdoch, who appears to have featured individually in many of the speeches, but not always to his credit.

I shall follow that understatement of the year by dealing with the matters that lie before your Lordships in this interesting debate. The debate was introduced by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, with his usual capability and great knowledge of this subject. I cannot help thinking that possibly one should start off on the basis that Parliament will always try to safeguard the freedom of the press and regards, without any doubt at all, the unacceptable face of what in my old-fashioned way I call Fleet Street as endangering that freedom to a great extent.

We touched on the privacy of the individual and on unacceptable methods of behaviour by certain journalists. But I wonder whether we have gone deeply enough into the harm that is done by invasion of privacy, which cannot in any way have the defence of public interest, in any proper definition of that term. I believe, without any question of doubt, that both in the United States and in this country some portions of the press have thought it perfectly proper in order to increase circulation not only to invade the privacy of men in public life but also to invade the privacy of members of their families and that of their intimate friends. I wonder how many men and women your Lordships know, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, who have been deterred from entering into public life, to which they could have made a great contribution, by this possible invasion of privacy.

I wonder how many candidates for the presidency of the United States, the status of which has not always been of the highest, have been prevented from standing on the basis that they were not prepared to have their families' privacy invaded. They may not mind their own privacy being invaded, but they want their children's privacy to be left alone. They consider that if their children unfortunately become drug addicts it is enough of a problem for the family without that information being plastered all over the front pages of every newspaper.

I wonder, too, how much pain has to be suffered by the most loyal and the most hard-working Royal Family that we have ever had. It is a bad state of affairs when a newspaper brandishes with pride the fact that some confidential correspondence has been placed in its hands in the most mysterious circumstances, and publishes the fact—it is not of course publishing the contents of that correspondence—that it has handed the correspondence back to the Palace. Any dignified newspaper would have taken those letters—I trust no copies would have been made—and sent them back immediately without anyone knowing about the matter, and without publishing the fact that the letters had ever entered that newspaper's possession.

So it is not just a question of little Mr. Jones, or anyone else who is very deserving of keeping his privacy, but of fundamental ways of carrying on public life to the best advantage of the nation. I wonder, as all your Lordships have done, how we should deal with this matter. First of all, I believe all of us have agreed that interference by statute and by the sanctions of the law is the least desirable way of dealing with the matter and carries with it all the dangers of which we are all aware. Once the law and Parliament step in to interfere with the press, a very dangerous state of affairs arises.

So one thinks in terms of the Press Council. How much I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, who pleaded for a code of conduct and said that it was about time that a brave Press Council produced one. The Press Council has a very brave chairman at the moment. He is a colleague whom I am proud to have in my profession. I hope that that code will be produced because at least it will clarify something. I looked at Chapter 3 of the report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, referred. One of the headings of that chapter was "Matters of Taste". I therefore inferred that if good taste was breached, the publication concerned would be subjected to the censorship of the Press Council. I looked at the very first item which came under the heading. It concerned the front page headline of the Sun, which was entitled "Pulpit Poofs can Stay". The finding in the adjudication of the Press Council stated that: The headline was vulgar and intended to shock. Its coarseness would offend many readers and be found insulting to homosexuals, but the Press Council is unable to say that it was likely to encourage hatred of them. The complaint…is therefore rejected". That finding came under the heading of "Matters of Taste". If that heading has any meaning at all, it can only mean that matters of taste are matters that the Press Council is supposed to deal with when it censors publications. I believe one cannot impose fines as they will not mean anything. However, one could return a finding which did not simply state "objection upheld", "complaint upheld" or "complaint rejected". Perhaps one could return a finding which stated "unacceptable journalistic behaviour". If the censoring body found that unacceptable journalistic behaviour had been entered into in a certain case, and the newspaper concerned had to print that finding, or if it did not its competitors undoubtedly would, would that not result in the language we want? We do not want simply the words "objection upheld", "complaint upheld" or "complaint rejected".

Time is short and the House will want to hear the Minister very much more than it wants to hear me. However, as my final point I wish to refer to something which is in my view terrifically important. Reference has been made to the fact that in Hansard of 21st April in another place, Mr. Renton, the Minister at the Home Office, made an announcement that: the Government have decided that there should be a review of the general issue of privacy and related matters—areas with which both Bills are concerned". He was dealing with the Bills we have discussed in the debate this afternoon. The review will be conducted outside Government and will aim to report to the Home Secretary within a year … Decisions have still to be taken on who should be invited to chair the review and the precise terms of reference. A formal announcement will be made in due course".—[Official Report, Commons, 21/4/89; col. 593.] I hope that that review will cover matters other than privacy. I hope that it will look at the law of defamation. I hope that it will also look at matters to which the learned chairman of the Press Council referred in a lecture which he delivered last night. That lecture was referred to by my noble friend Lord Ardwick, but he referred to another part of it. In that lecture there was a most interescing suggestion which I believe will especially interest the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, whom we are all delighted to see join us at the end of this debate.

The suggestion was that we look again at the tort, which could include not only defamation but also the loss of dignity or damage to the dignity of the individual. That would be a new tort in our law. This is how the chairman dealt with the matter: If injury to reputation is properly to be treated as an adjunct to the individual's self-esteem, there could be a single tort of protection for the person. The definition of this tort, which would be an amalgam of defamation and privacy, would run along these lines. Any unauthorised use of disclosure of personal information calculated or intended to cause or did cause distress, annoyance or embarrassment, or damage the reputation of another, is actionable, unless otherwise justified on the grounds of the nature of the personal information and the legitimate public interest (if any) of such information". I hope that the government review will at least look at that suggestion. It could do a great deal which the two Bills in the other place would not have been able to do.

I hope that the press of this country—it used to be called the great press—will pay attention to some of the very worthwhile speeches that have been made in your Lordships' House today, not least by the brave proprietor who came to the House, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens, to make his contribution. I hope that it will lead to self-regulation in order to minimise if not completely destroy those who have sullied the good name of the press.

5.13 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, has done your Lordships' House a service by giving your Lordships the opportunity to discuss the 35th annual report of the Press Council which was published last week, and all that goes with that. We have heard a cross-section of speakers, including a newspaper proprietor, an editor, a journalist, a bishop, consumers, the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford. My contribution has yet to come, but it will be the least significant. A cross-section of speakers and interests has been displayed this afternoon.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. I was glad of the welcome that he gave to my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate. It was good that we should hear the views of a newspaper proprietor, even if at one period he was, curiously enough, mildly supportive of his own newspapers. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said he was glad that the noble Lord had come because it was always left to journalists defend the press. If that is so, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, normally carries out that task very effectively. I agreed with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester when he said that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, was courageous, open and honest.

It has been a valuable and interesting debate, one from which the press has not emerged unscathed. Press accountability happens to be a subject of great topical interest, but then it always is. The phrase "The freedom of the press" always evokes great emotions; and quite rightly so. The freedom of the press has guarded our freedoms, and I think that it is not too extreme to say that it has protected democracy. It is a greatly cherished part of our national heritage. But freedom is not licence. Abuse of that freedom jeopardises the very freedom itself.

This subject—as one might expect—is one on which your Lordships hold strong views. As always, the views of your Lordships reflect public opinion, where the debate about press standards and the conduct of the press has intensified considerably in recent months.

That is not surprising. There is genuine and legitimate concern, which we have heard about today, about what is known as the tabloid press and its approach to journalism. That approach appears to concentrate not on the quality of well written and informative articles but, as so many noble Lords have said, on the need to seek out more and more salacious details about the lives of so-called celebrities—whoever happens to have got momentarily caught in the spotlight of publicity. The deliberate intrusion into what should be the private lives of people—and recently we have seen this in the grief of the relatives of the victims of disaster—is a matter of public concern and sometimes of public vexation.

At times, the press appears willingly to print articles which, at best, are a distortion of the truth and, at worst, are even falsehoods. When discovered, it sometimes seems to find it difficult to accept the responsibility to publish corrections. My noble friend Lord Auckland gave us an example of a child who was accused of drinking champagne and thereupon received a visitation from the Temperance Society. I do not know what effect that had on the child, aged two, but it certainly had a remarkable effect on my noble friend, who has never forgotten the exercise. No doubt it has helped him to live in a straight and narrow way ever since.

The noble Earl, Lord Longford, threw one's imagination into vivid relief when he said that he was accused of handbagging—I think that is the expression: lashing out at a reporter through a glass panel. As the noble Earl pointed out, he got no apology. All he got was a written piece in the paper of his own version of the circumstances. The noble Earl's description of that incident emphasises the important point that the original divulgence is news and the correction is not news. The original divulgence causes damage. The correction does not undo the damage.

However, whatever practices some papers may adopt, we must be careful not to brand all of the press with the faults of the few. As so many noble Lords have said, the local, regional and the quality national newspapers are essential to our interests if we are to have a well informed public. They are highly valued, they are varied, and they are usually of a very high standard. I think it would not be unfair to say that the best of British newspapers compare well with any in the rest of the world.

One or two noble Lords referred to the two Bills considered in another place. There was the Right of Reply Bill which reached but did not complete its Report stage last week. The Protection of Privacy Bill is also proceeding in another place. Both Bills were born out of substantial public and parliamentary concern about the excesses of certain elements of the press. Despite that, I am bound to say that the Government have serious reservations about them. I agree with my noble friend Lord Stevens of Ludgate that both would encroach upon the freedom of the press. That is a heritage that we rightly prize. We must be careful about surrendering it and certainly not without good cause.

No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, will agree. The noble Lord was worried about shackling a free press. He said that he was opposed to legislation and to inaction. I think that that encapsulates what most of us feel; namely, that we do not want legislation. But neither do we want inaction.

We have doubts about whether the provisions in the Bills would work effectively in practice. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said that if the Bills failed, the problem would not necessarily go away. It would simply be a reprieve for the press to put its own house in order. I agree with the noble Lord who, as usual, put his case very well.

The issues raised by the Bills also strike at the very heart of the Press Council, as its annual report makes clear. It has become something of a national sport to attack the Press Council. Everyone knows about the "toothless tiger"—a rather offensive description, I always think. But if the Press Council is an inherently ineffective body—as some seem to suggest—it is not imprudent to ask why it has survived so well over 30 years. The council started on 1st July 1953, following a recommendation made by the first Royal Commission on the Press. The commission considered that some measure was necessary in order to ensure certain standards of journalistic behaviour; but it also believed that the authority to enforce those standards had to come from the profession itself. Two successive Royal Commissions have confirmed that view. They felt that an effective voluntary body was preferable to any form of statutory control. That remains the Government's view.

Each commission also considered it necessary to include lay members in the council in order to increase public confidence in the impartiality of the council. Lay members now make up half of the council's voting membership. But each Royal Commission also pointed out that if self-regulation is to succeed it must be effective. To be effective, any body must change with the times. The newly appointed chairman of the Press Council, Mr. Blom-Cooper, said in his foreword to the recent report that "times have changed". So they have. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said that The Times has changed. That puts a different inflexion on to the concept. If so, that must be a terrible jolt to the establishment. I know that the noble Lord holds his own views about those sorts of newspapers.

Many noble Lords have said that journalists have become intrusive. I agree. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, said that some sections of the press behave in a way that would be unacceptable with any other body of people, particularly when they come and poke their cameras into people's rooms. I think that the noble Lord is largely correct. Instances of distortion and inaccuracy and, sometimes, of downright disregard for fact have regrettably become far more common. The press world today is highly competitive, not just in financial and commercial terms, but in the race to provide ever more avant garde, titillating, salacious, intrusive and often offensive material, which inevitably presses against the bounds of acceptability.

Standards have suffered even though circulation may not have done. It was good that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Manchester said that one editor had remarked that what is important is truth. That is not necessarily evident in all newspapers, but it is good that the right reverend Prelate found that comment somewhere. I wish that the sentiment were more evident. The right reverend Prelate said that the tabloids reflect different views of the world. That is perfectly true, but they still influence the world and events. I believe that standards are important and it is important that they should not suffer. We must never forget—and the press must never forget—that the press wields great power and influence. It may say that it does not. It may think that it does not. But it does.

As so many noble Lords have said, intrusive journalism can be deeply distressing. Inaccurate and biased reporting can have damaging consequences which go far beyond the immediate publication of the report. It can affect a person's life and prejudice his standing in the community. When we see abuses of that kind, it is not surprising that they have become a matter for public concern.

I was interested to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, thought that it would not be appropriate for the press to be controlled by a group of people who, I believe he said, were lackeys of the Minister.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I said "nominees of Ministers".

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I must get the wording right. I do not wish to give the wrong impression. That provided an interesting contrast with the noble Lord's comment that the best way to encourage the elevation of standards was for my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to talk to one of the newspaper proprietors. That said a great deal for my right honourable friend and a certain amount about the proprietors. I thought it an interesting intellectual argument.

It is not surprising to find that repeated examples of abuse, albeit by an irresponsible minority, have generated increasing public hostility towards the press. The two Private Member's Bills, to which a number of noble Lords have referred, have been carried forward on just that tide of hostility. But anger, however legitimate, does not make a good basis for legislation. Legislation on this subject is far from straightforward, as the progress of the two Bills has shown.

The first question one must ask is: how would press freedom fare under the heavy hand of statutory control? This Government might well respect press freedom, but I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, when he asked what would happen if another government of a totally different make-up and hue took a different view. I fear that to seek to control the press through legislation —which, by its nature, suggests a degree of government control—could place us on a very slippery slope. The Government would become the arbiter of acceptability, and that is only one step away from censorship. Once we have censorship, the freedom of the press and the freedom to disseminate thought and opinion have gone out or the window.

We believe that self-regulation of the press is preferable to any form of statutory control. The noble Lord, Lord Ardwick, said that we need a code of practice rather than fines. That may be so. It is a matter for people to consider. Whatever it is, it must be enforceable, and that is up to the press. Any system of self-regulation is only as effective as the degree of co-operation and respect that it receives from those who are parties to the system; otherwise, it simply does not work. The Press Council is aware of that and of the need to respond to the changing climate of public opinion. Its review of its functions and procedures seems to be both thorough and far reaching. Possibly even more important, it appears to have support from the regional and the national press—a degree of support that has not always been evident in those quarters in the past.

Some of the credit for a more enlightened approach by the newspaper industry must go to the sponsors of the two Bills that I have mentioned. They succeeded in raising the level of appreciation by all sections of the press of the degree of public and parliamentary concern and apprehension over their activities. That degree of concern is shared by the Government. It was for that reason that my honourable friend the Minister of State, Mr. Renton, announced in another place last week that the Government have decided that there should be a review of the general issue of privacy and related matters. My noble friend Lord Beloff asked about this. It is a review of privacy and related matters; it is quite separate from Mr. Blom-Cooper's review of the Press Council's rules and functions which was announced some months earlier. The proposals recently suggested by Mr. Blom-Cooper for reform of the law on defamation and privacy will no doubt be taken into account in the review of privacy and related matters announced by my honourable friend last week.

The review will be conducted outside government and will aim to report to the Home Secretary within a year. Decisions have still to be taken as to who should be invited to chair the review and the precise terms of reference. The views of the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, on that point were interesting. A formal announcement will be made in due course.

I believe that this is a positive step. It is designed to deal with the problems that understandably have caused public and parliamentary disquiet for some time. Your Lordships will have listened to today's debate with great care, as indeed I have done. I hope that the newspaper industry will also have listened carefully and, if it has not listened, will at least read carefully what has been said. I hope that it will take note of the level of concern expressed about its current activities.

The future of the press is in the hands of the press. It ignores the warnings of public concern at its peril. If, as a result, the press loses its freedom, it will be the loser; but so also will the public. The noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, has introduced an important and timely debate. If it has done none other—and I am sure it will have done much more—than hoist a storm cone for all the press to see, then it will have been of immensely valuable service.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down I noted that he used the word "enforceable". Did he mean enforceable or effective?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not certain of the context to which the noble Lord refers?

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, it was in the context of the Press Council's judgments. The noble Earl used the word "enforceable". That is an entirely new thought from the Government. I think that he probably meant effective.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not wish to split hairs with the noble Lord. I gather that he thinks this is slightly more than a question of semantics. The important point is that it should be effective.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I welcome greatly the Minister's statement that the Government attach great importance to a self-regulatory Press Council. I welcome also his statement of the Government's reluctance to see any form of statutory intervention from which he would expect to see grave dangers to the freedom of the press. I find that very encouraging.

I am most grateful to Members of the House who have taken part in this wide-ranging debate. It has emphasised the point with which I started; namely, that the press is now on probation. If it does not put its house in order and give to a reconstructed Press Council under the chairmanship of Mr. Blom-Cooper a chance of establishing effective control over standards, the inevitable result will be the disaster of statutory intervention. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.