HL Deb 23 March 1990 vol 517 cc555-62

2.36 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe rose to ask Her Majesty's Government when they expect to publish the report of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission into the Sullivan/Bristol Evening Post inquiry.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I may say how glad I am to have the opportunity to raise the issue in your Lordships' House. I realise that the Minister will be constrained in his reply by the reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but it is particularly appropriate that I speak on the matter today because this is the last day on which the Monopolies and Mergers Commission said that it would receive representations on the matter.

One of the greatest privileges of membership of this House and of the other place is that of freedom from arrest in civil suits. This privilege which we enjoy has to be used carefully and sparingly. However, I must speak perfectly frankly in relation to what I feel is not only an important local issue in Bristol but one that has national implications.

On Wednesday, 21st March, this week, I bought a copy of the newspaper the Sport. It appears to be modelled on a publication in the United States called the National Inquirer which I am told is seriously suspected of having connections with the Mafia.

The copy that I bought on Wednesday is 32 pages long. One only needs to give it a cursory glance to see exactly what kind of paper it is. Three of its pages carry pictures of topless models; 17 contain advertisements for sexually explicit telephone lines; nine carry advertisements for pornographic literature and videos. I asked a member of the Commons staff whether he had ever read the newspaper. He said that he had bought one or two issues because it was called the Sport and he thought that it might contain information about what are normally regarded as public sporting activities.

On the previous day, 20th March, before the issue of this copy, there were two vital First Division matches: Queens Park Rangers against Aston Villa, which was vital to the outcome of the First Division championship; and Crystal Palace against Derby County, which was vital for the relegation stakes. However the Sport that I bought on the Wednesday carried no reports of the matches. Even the First Division tables which were published took no account of the results of these matches. Needless to say, all the other national newspapers carried the results and match reports. Surely by using the title the Sport, the paper is using a sprat to catch a mackerel.

This is a sister paper to the Sunday Sport of which I was able to obtain a copy from the Library. In defence of the Library I must say that it had to send out for a copy because it is not normally stocked. However it was able to obtain the Sunday Sport for me. That again has 32 pages, of which 15 advertise sexually explicit telephone lines, five have pictures of "topless" women and eight have advertisements for pornographic literature and videos. Yet that is the newspaper which portrays itself as Britain's fastest growing family newspaper.

The owner of the Sport and the Sunday Sport is Mr. David Sullivan. That is the man who wishes to take a 25 per cent. share in the Bristol Evening Post. He is said to be interested in racehorses and to own racehorses. Let us look at his form. His business interests include a number of pornographic magazines. He once owned Britain's largest chain of sex shops and he has been responsible for the production of pornographic films. In May 1982 Mr. Sullivan was sentenced to nine months' (later reduced to 71 days') imprisonment for living off prostitution at massage parlours that he owned. Even before the launch of the Sunday Sport Mr. Sullivan was making something in the region of £ 10 million a year.

I do not wish to turn this issue into one of civil liberties, although the National Council for Civil Liberties has already studied the coverage given to women by Mr. Sullivan's newspapers. I should like to mention another aspect of the matter.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for one moment. The noble Lord has made out a deadly case against this regrettable figure. Will he deal with the question of whether that gentleman should be prosecuted?

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I am sure that the Minister will have noted that intervention. My remarks are addressed to the reference to the MMC of this bid for a 25 per cent. holding in the Evening Post.

A major element of Mr. Sullivan's publications is advertisements for sleazy telephone services, offering soft pom recorded messages. That is no surprise because, as I have said, Mr. Sullivan is one of the king pins in that despicable trade and advertises his own sordid offerings in his newspapers.

These so-called services have caused deep concern, not least to British Telecom. I have done some research into the matter and it is clear that British Telecom, contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, does not have complete freedom to keep unpleasant men like Mr. Sullivan off its networks. However, the chairman of British Telecom, Iain Vallance, took a strong stand against the "Sullivans" of this world earlier this year when he said: British Telecom does not provide such services, and we do not welcome their provision by others". British Telecom has tried to give a lead in this matter, and I hope that the MMC and the Secretary of State will follow it. The issue at stake here is that Bristol's well liked, local family newspaper may come under the influence of a man whose only experience of publishing is not suitable for family reading. The Evening Post is of a high standard, but, judging by Mr. Sullivan's publications, in the event of him gaining a position of influence that standard may well drop dramatically.

I have already written to the MMC expressing my concern about this matter. I made the point that I have lived in Bristol since 1941. I had the honour to represent a Bristol constituency in the other place from 1970 to 1987 and so I feel that I may speak with some knowledge of Bristol and its people. To appreciate the enormity of what is proposed, it is important to understand that Bristol, unlike some other large cities, has, to a large extent, retained the characteristics of a much smaller town. There is a strongly developed sense of community and local pride. That was especially shown during the pounding that Bristol received from the Luftwaffe during the war. That sense of togetherness has been supported and fostered by the Bristol Evening Post. It has a wide circulation not just in Bristol but in the surrounding areas. It covers a great many national and international affairs but remains essentially a family newspaper. It publishes a wide range of articles and news catering for all tastes. It is entirely free from anything of a doubtful or salacious nature and the Evening Post can safely be left around the house where there may be young children. In addit ion to its news content the Evening Post renders a valuable service through its commercial activities. Quite apart from the normal house and car advertisements, its columns of small ads. are read assiduously by Bristolians as a mine of information for various requirements and entertainments, not least by myself.

I am not the only person to have expressed concern on the matter. Members in the other place who know the area have also made representations. The right honourable gentleman, the Member for Bristol West, said that such a move would be a disaster for the newspaper group. The Member for Wansdyke, the Member for Bristol South and the right honourable Member for Yeovil have all expressed considerable concern at the implications of the acquisition of a successful 25 per cent. stake by Mr. Sullivan. The Member for Bristol East has tabled an Early-Day Motion— No. 760— asking the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to recommend rejection of Mr. Sullivan's unsavoury influences. Indeed, the Member for Warrington South has already stated in another place that the constant advertising of pornographic telephone numbers by the Sunday Sport brings discredit on the telephone service. I have already referred to British Telecom's deep concern about the matter.

The Bristol Evening Post is an important local family newspaper. If Mr. Sullivan is able to exert an influence on it we may end up with nothing more than vehicle for publicising what is in effect soft porn with local issues losing priority. If it can happen in Bristol where else may it happen? I hope that both the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and the Government will bear in mind the public interest in its widest possible sense when considering the matter.

2.47 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, it is particularly appropriate that the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, with his long record of service in Bristol, should raise this matter in this House this afternoon. The issues that he has identified raise matters of very serious concern in all parts of the House.

A few months ago my wife and I had a visit from a distinguished editor of an evening newspaper in the middle West of the United States who was visiting this country. On the Sunday morning I went out and bought him a bunch of our tabloid newspapers. He had the advantage of seeing the News of the World and the People — two newspapers he did not find at first glance particularly attractive. He then came to the Sunday Sport which was a newspaper the like of which he had not seen in America. The noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, referred to the National Inquirer, but that is an altogether different type of publication. The Sunday Sport and its daily companion purport to be newspapers.

My American friend found it almost inconceivable that, even in the atmosphere of the United States, there could be a publication of that sort in America. So far as I am aware there is no such publication in any country of the European Community outside our own.

For that and the fact that this is a British first, I suppose that we have to thank Mr. Sullivan. He is a noted pornographer, as the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, has rightly said. He is also a highly successful entrepreneur. He has managed to identify a very sleazy market. He has achieved a circulation for his newspaper of over half a million. No doubt he regards himself as a successful businessman. However, I take the view that it would be little short of a national outrage were he to be allowed to acquire a substantial interest in a fine old newspaper like the Bristol Evening Post with a long record of service to the local community.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, has rightly asked, will it stop there? If he is allowed to acquire such an interest, what other evening newspapers will experience the same type of approach from him? I recognise that that undoubtedly raises some very difficult problems for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission because it is being asked to look at a very different type of issue from those it normally has to consider. I very much hope that the Minister will be able to tell us that a report of these proceedings will be passed to the chairman so that he is aware of the concern in all part of your Lordships' House on this matter. I also wish to indicate once again to the Minister how much anger there will be not only in Bristol but outside it if Mr. Sullivan is allowed to acquire this interest in the Bristol Evening Post.

2.50 p.m.

Lord Peston

My Lords, we are all indebted to my noble friend Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe for raising this matter. I wish to address the specific issue that he raised and to follow other noble Lords in considering the general question. Clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, is right to raise the matter and place it before your Lordships. The people of Bristol are also right to be concerned.

In terms of the specific Question on the Order Paper; namely, when Her Majesty's Government expect the report to appear, I should like an answer to that question. In passing, I wish to congratulate or to sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, in that he has sacrificed his normal standards in order to buy a copy of this rag. I did not feel able to follow him in that. Even though I am an industry spokesman who is anxious to participate in this debate, I felt it was too much to possess such a sordid document.

On the general issue can the noble Viscount enlighten us on what the Monopolies and Mergers Commission can consider? I appreciate that under the fair trade legislation it is obliged to concern itself with matters to do with the purchase of newspapers. However, in considering those issues is the Monopolies and Mergers Commission limited to matters of competition policy, or can it interpret the public interest aspects of this problem more broadly? Can the commission interpret in particular the public interest aspects to take account essentially of pornography? My reading of the fair trade legislation does not make it obvious to me that that is the case. I hope that the noble Viscount can enlighten us on that aspect.

In considering any matter of this kind, I appreciate the civil liberties problem. My noble friend Lord Cocks has referred to that. Before I add a few words, I wish to make the general proposition that although all of us are concerned in virtually everything we do in your Lordships' House with civil liberties, that is not the only ethical consideration that we have in mind on every single topic. There are other moral aspects of matters. Although I stand second to none in my commitment to civil liberties, I realise that they are not the only topic that I or other noble Lords are committed to.

In that connection, I appreciate that there is always the problem of where to draw the line between the near pornography of the so-called gutter press and the more definite pornography of this particular rag; namely, the daily and Sunday Sport. I know that we may argue about that, but in my opinion, and I think in the opinion of all of us, there can be no doubt whatsoever that wherever we drew the line, it would be well to one side of the Sport. There is no doubt that that would be on the wrong side of the line.

As the noble Lords, Lord Cocks and Lord Harris, have said, we have here in essence a pornographer who may be able to buy into a respectable paper on the basis of his pornographic profits. He is seeking to exploit the liberality of our laws and our respect for press freedom. In my opinion, he must be stopped in his tracks now. As the Opposition industry spokesman I am always careful about not seeking to influence the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. I hope that it will come to its conclusions on the basis of the evidence, and after serious consideration of all the relevant matters. However, I have to say that in my opinion if its report does not provide a basis for prevention, the Government themselves must find such a basis even if in due course it involves primary legislation.

2.55 p.m.

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, it is perhaps a reflection of the very important public interest issues that are often involved in the transfer of newspapers from one newspaper proprietor to another, that we have had the debate in your Lordships' House today. The matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, are important ones and it is because of these that we have had since 1965— first, in the Monopolies and Mergers Act 1965 and now in the Fair Trading Act 1973— special provisions to deal with newspaper transfers. These are separate and distinct from those parts of the Act which deal with ordinary mergers.

What we read in the newspapers, and for newspapers to serve the needs of the public and community, is important and touches upon our basic concept of freedom. Freedom of the press is important. The Royal Commission on the Press in 1961–62 concluded, however, that action was needed to regulate increasing concentration of ownership which could threaten freedom and variety of expression of opinion and possibly unbiased presentation of views. It was from this report that the special newspaper provisions have their origins. The purpose of the original Act and the present Fair Trading Act is to safeguard the public interest when newspaper changes arise or are imminent. As I will explain later, the fact that major mergers, except in certain circumstances, have to be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission for investigation is a valuable safeguard in relation to the very special public interest questions arising in relation to newspapers.

Thus, under the Fair Trading Act the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's prior written consent is required for any transfer of a newspaper or newspaper assets to a newspaper proprietor whose newspapers, including the newspaper to be transferred, have an average paid-for circulation per day of publication of 500,000 or more.

A newspaper proprietor is defined as any person having a controlling interest in a newspaper, or a company which is itself a newspaper proprietor. Controlling interest, as the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, informed us, is defined as controlling indirectly or directly 25 per cent. of the voting shares.

Consent cannot normally be given without there first being a report from the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, but the Secretary of State has discretion to give consent without a report in cases of financial urgency or if the newspaper being transferred has a paid-for circulation of less than 25,000.

A reflection of the importance which successive governments have placed on these provisions is that should a qualifying transfer take place without the Secretary of State's consent, then the transfer shall be unlawful and void.

In the case of the inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission to which the noble Lord referred in his question, an application by Mr. Sullivan for the Secretary of State's consent to him acquiring a controlling interest in the Bristol Evening Post was received on 12th February. Mr. Sullivan, by virtue of his beneficial interest in 50 per cent. of the shares of Sports Newspapers Ltd., which publishes newspapers with a combined circulation of above 1 million, is therefore a newspaper proprietor within the meaning of the Fair Trading Act. The Bristol Evening Post publishes newspapers with a paid for circulation per day of around 230,000.

There was no doubt that this was a qualifying merger which required the Secretary of State's consent. As no application was made for the discretionary consent of the Secretary of State, a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was automatic.

The reference was made on 5th March and made public the following day. The commission has been given two months in which to report from the date of the reference and the Secretary of State will publish the report as soon as possible thereafter. That is probably the date that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, was seeking.

I referred earlier to the special concerns which led to the newspaper merger provisions. These concerns are directly reflected in the terms in the Act which specifically require the commission to report to the Secretary of State whether the transfer in question may be expected to operate against the public interest, taking into account all matters which appear to be relevant and in particular the need for accurate presentation of news and free expression of opinion. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, that the Government at that stage cannot tell it to consider particular aspects in particular cases. The matter of whether or not newspapers are obscene for the purpose of the Obscene Publications Act is a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions. The Act also allowed for the formation of a newspaper panel which could be appointed by the Secretary of State to the commission to help it with a particular inquiry. For this reference the Secretary of State has appointed three experienced and eminent journalists and broadcasters. I am sure that the additional experience and knowledge they will bring to the commission's inquiry will be of great value.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, can we be reminded who these gentlemen are?

Viscount Ullswater

My Lords, yes. The three concerned are Sir Alastair Burnet, Mr. Mark Kersen, the managing director of a major regional newspaper, the Wolverhampton Express and Star, and Mr. Robert Kernohan, a freelance journalist, former editor of Life and Work, which is a Church of Scotland magazine, and former editor of the Glasgow Herald.

The matter is now before the commission. It is considering it and in the usual way has invited observations of the proposed transfer from any who care to make them. I am sure noble Lords will understand that it would not be right or proper for me to comment on its investigation, nor to express an opinion on what attitude it should take towards it. However, I am sure that the views expressed here today by noble Lords will be noted by the commission. To assist the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, I shall make certain that the comments your Lordships have made today will be passed to the commission.

House adjourned at three minutes past three o'clock.