HL Deb 17 October 1990 vol 522 cc888-90

2.57 p.m.

Lord Mishcon asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have had any indication from the newspaper industry that the projected Press Complaints Commission will entertain complaints about standards of journalism and not only complaints by aggrieved persons; and, if not, whether they will urge that such powers be given to this new body.

Lord Reay

My Lords, the Calcutt Report recommended that the Press Council be replaced by a Press Complaints Commission which would consider complaints of unjust or unfair treatment by the press and of unwarranted infringements of privacy through published material or in connection with obtaining such material. The Government have welcomed this proposal for self-regulation and made known that they will review the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission after 18 months operation. Subject to that, the Government have no intention of intervening in the remit of the commission.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in every debate in your Lordships' House about the press and its standards, the standard of journalism in certain journals has come under bitter criticism? Is he also aware that if this self-regulatory body is to be effective the question of standards of journalism must be part of the remit? Why do the Government not wish to see that matter as part of the remit?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I was indeed entirely aware of the noble Lord's first two points. The remit of the Press Complaints Commission will be narrower than that of the Press Council, but whether or not this narrower remit will make the commission more effective is a matter for speculation. The important point is that the Government will consider putting regulation on a statutory basis if the commission is not effective. We are confident that the commission can be effective so long as it has the support of the industry.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that "standards of journalism" also means ethical or unethical standards, such as the cruelty of intrusion into private grief, the hounding of individuals and the rottenness of cheque-book journalism? Is he further aware that the Press Complaints Commission will be of no use unless it has sanction powers publicly to call on the journalist to apologise and pay compensation; and, if the incident is serious enough, to curtail production of the tabloid paper concerned? Finally, does he not agree that only by such penalties will standards of tabloid journalism improve?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the noble Lord raised a number of points. The general assessment of the Calcutt Report was that the Press Council was ineffective. We welcome the proposal that it should be replaced by the proposed Press Complaints Commission. The situation at present is that the industry is to be self-regulated for at any rate a further 18 months. At the end of that period we shall review the situation and decide whether it is necessary to introduce legislation to put the commission on a statutory basis.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, to the post of chairman of the commission will be a very successful one?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am sure that all Members of your Lordships' House welcome the appointment of the noble Lord to the chairmanship of that body. He has considerable knowledge and experience both of the press and of self-regulation. We have every confidence that he will prove to be a truly independent chairman.

Lord Glenamara

My Lords, does the noble Lord believe that a commission consisting of editors is really the best kind of body to adjudicate on complaints against the press?

Lord Reay

My Lords, the main point is that we must look to see whether this form of self-regulation works. That is the position in which we now find ourselves.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Press Council has not been a success over many years under many different chairmen? Does he also agree that its lack of success was at least in part due to its preoccupation with difficult matters of taste and with regular complainers who had particular bees in their bonnets? After all these years of failure, should we not at least give the new organisation a chance?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his closing remarks which I fully endorse.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, do Her Majesty's Government agree with the criticism that the standard of tabloid journalism in this country is deplorable?

Lord Reay

My Lords, it is plain that the situation which led to the setting up of the Calcutt Committee arose out of a widespread dislike of abuses which have, generally speaking, been observed and resented. That is the situation in which we have found ourselves. The Calcutt Committee recommended the establishment of this new commission. We give it our support, but we must wait to see whether it is effective as a method of self-regulation.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to explain to the House how the effectiveness of a power of a commission can be looked at by the Government when the power is not given to that commission?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I do not think that the Government will be looking only at the effectiveness of the Press Complaints Commission; they will also be looking at the effectiveness of self-regulation more widely practised in, for example, the areas to which the noble Lord referred, which are not within the remit of the commission. The Government will be looking at all those aspects of self-regulation over the next 18 months.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the commission will be drawing up a code of impartiality?

Lord Reay

My Lords, I am afraid that that is another question to which I have no answer at present.