HL Deb 17 July 1995 vol 566 cc32-44

4.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)

My Lords, with the agreement of the House, it may be convenient if I repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State of the Department of National Heritage in another place on privacy and media intrusion. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement about the press and privacy.

"I am today publishing the Government's response to the Report of the National Heritage Select Committee on Privacy and Media Intrusion. Copies are available in the Library and Vote Office.

"I pay tribute to the Select Committee for their report. The Government very much appreciate the committee's patience in their long wait for this response. The issues in this area go to the heart of our democracy, and the Government have thought about them long and hard. In every democracy there is a balance to be struck between the rights of individuals to personal privacy and the freedom of the press. As the Select Committee recognise, this is not always easy to achieve.

"It is a proud feature of our free nation that for 300 years, other than as a necessity in times of war, the United Kingdom press has been at liberty to write whatever it chooses, subject to the constraints of the law as it applies equally to all citizens. Such freedoms are jealously guarded by the press itself and by this House. The surest means of protecting these freedoms is to ensure they are used responsibly.

"Overall, the quality and standards of our local, regional and national press are high. However, some newspapers have ridden roughshod over people's privacy when there was no possible justification for doing so. Cases concern not just those in public life but private citizens who become the subject of media scrutiny through circumstances not of their choosing. People are entitled to privacy for themselves and their families. In response to these concerns the industry has taken a number of steps. An independent, non-statutory Press Complaints Commission was set up at the beginning of 1991. Lord Wakeham was appointed as chairman of the commission at the beginning of this year. He has considerably strengthened it. The majority of its members are now independent of the press and bring robust common sense to the cases before them. Lord Wakeham set out the steps he has taken in a recent letter to my predecessor. It is published today as an annex to the Government's response.

"The development of a national code of practice for the press is a significant improvement on what has gone before. The code, and how it is applied, is being shown to have effect. The House will be aware, for example, of a recent instance where the editor of a Sunday tabloid was publicly reprimanded by the newspaper's proprietor for breaching the code. More needs to be done. I am glad to note that, as the Select Committee recommended, increasingly compliance with the code is being written into the employment contracts of editors and journalists.

"Lord Wakeham is bringing forward proposals for discussion on how both the public and the PCC can contribute to revising and further toughening the code of practice. This is welcome as are his proposals for performance targets against which to measure the commission's efficiency and responsiveness.

"It is essential that self-regulation is both effective and seen to be effective. There have been improvements to the PCC. Lord Wakeham is committed to doing more.

"I have written to him setting out further improvements the Government wish to see both in the procedures of the PCC and in the code of practice itself. My letter is published as an annex to the Government's response to the Select Committee.

"We recommend that the PCC pays out compensation to those who it judges have had their privacy violated by the press. Such awards would be paid from a fund set up by the industry. This would be a collective recognition from the industry that one of its members had wronged a member of the public.

"We have proposed several ways in which the code of practice might be further tightened up. In particular, there are several points where the language of the code should be more precise, or the emphasis changed, to place greater weight on the protection of individual privacy.

"We support the Select Committee's call for a direct and rapid line of communication between the chairman of the PCC and newspaper editors. This would be used to warn them where, in the chairman's judgment on the basis of evidence submitted to him, the code was about to be breached. This could be used to head off abuses. It is also important that the public have rapid and direct access to the PCC. This facility should be well publicised in the press so the public are aware of it.

"The Government have considered carefully whether legislative options should be pursued, rather than the self-regulatory alternative. We have decided for the present to allow Lord Wakeham's commission, and the press, to demonstrate that self-regulation can be made to work. Let me say something though about each of the legislative alternatives.

"The Heritage Select Committee and Sir David Calcutt's 1993 Report before it both took the view that legislation was needed to prevent abuses by the press. However, there is disagreement about the best remedies to apply. Sir David Calcutt recommended a statutory press complaints tribunal, but this was rejected by the Select Committee.

"The Government agree with the committee that a statutory press complaints tribunal would not be right. We believe in a free press. Like the committee, we are reluctant to see statutory controls. A statutory tribunal would be a very significant step on a path we have no wish to travel. For the same reason we cannot accept the committee's recommendation for a statutory ombudsman.

"I come next to the Heritage committee's recommendation for a protection of privacy Bill with both civil and criminal elements. The criminal elements would be similar to the intrusion offences proposed in the Calcutt Report. However, the Select Committee, unlike Calcutt, would extend the offences to cover intrusion for any purpose and not just for publication.

"The Government have made it clear that they see attractions in principle in the use of the criminal law to prevent and penalise blatant and unjustified intrusions into the privacy of individuals. Nor could the owners or editors of most newspapers, we believe, legitimately object to sensible laws in this area.

"The Government have therefore given the most painstaking consideration to how the necessary legislation might be drawn up. In particular, they examined from every angle how the Calcutt offences might work in practice. This work is described in detail in Chapter Three of the Government's response.

"We have been guided by the principle that the law must be both clear and enforceable. It must have a good chance of catching those who are abusing their powers while not inhibiting legitimate journalistic investigation. Any legislation would have to establish a balance which protects privacy while allowing responsible journalism and without creating defences that were so wide as to render the offences meaningless.

"We have been forced to conclude that the difficulties of scope and definition of the proposed offences, and the necessary defences, are formidable. The Government would prefer to see a self-regulatory process than to introduce a law which could create more problems than it is designed to solve. The Government therefore have no immediate plans to legislate in this area.

"The Select Committee also recommended a civil remedy for infringement of privacy. This would give victims of infringements of privacy a right to damages and to seek injunctions. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor and the then Secretary of State for Scotland consulted on a new civil remedy in 1993.

"The consultation did not generate the clear support which the Government look for when considering major measures of law reform. The Government are not yet persuaded that there is sufficient consensus on which to base statutory intervention in this area. Moreover the Government strongly prefer the principle of self-regulation.

"On balance therefore the Government have decided not to legislate for a new civil remedy, at least for the present. We do believe however that the right to privacy should be more explicitly spelt out in the industry's code of practice. For this reason we are publishing, as an annex to our response, what a civil remedy might look like with the recommendation that elements of it should be incorporated into the code.

"The whole House will look to the industry to respond positively to the recommendations set out in my letter to Lord Wakeham. Self-regulation still has a case to prove. Despite the serious practical difficulties, legislative measures should not be ruled out.

"The fact is however that self-regulation is the most practical way forward. The appointment of Lord Wakeham and the approach he is taking offer the best opportunity for some time that self-regulation will be made to work in a way which commands public confidence. There are signs of a growing recognition among editors, including past miscreants, that the right of individual privacy is not to be casually cast aside.

"The industry now has to back the PCC and to make self-regulation fully effective. This is an issue which the Government and this House will and should continue to monitor and debate."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.38 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Statement, such as it is. The House will be aware that the Calcutt Committee first reported on privacy five years ago, on press self-regulation two and half years ago, and the National Heritage Select Committee some time ago. A remarkably long gestation period has been needed to give birth to this little mouse. Rarely can so many have laboured so long to produce so little. There appears to be a strong whiff of appeasement in the air. I am bound to say that at least Stanley Baldwin, although afraid of the Germans, was not afraid of the press.

On the central issue of the tort of privacy, I see the Government's problems, especially where legal aid is not available, though I note that our neighbours, the French, have resolved those problems. Moreover, the European Convention on Human Rights contains a definition of, and protection for, the right of privacy. I can say now that on this side we believe that that right should be entrenched in British law together with the right to freedom of expression, when properly exercised, as also in the convention, and freedom of information, and that those three pillars (privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of information) strike the right balance between ensuring that the public interest and the right to know matters of genuine public concern are published, while protecting the right of private individuals to their privacy.

In one area of that, where the Government, as in all areas, are doing nothing, Calcutt was, in my view, good and clear on preventing technological intrusion. He states clearly that various acts of physical intrusion should be criminal offences. The Select Committee supported that and in fact widened it. I shall remind the House what those acts were. They were entering private property without consent to obtain personal information for publication; placing surveillance devices similarly; taking photographs or recording voices of individuals on private property for publication without consent; the improper interception of private telecommunications and, of course, the low hooliganism of journalists "doorstepping". Those seem to me to be clear offences which should not be tolerated in a civilised society. Many Members of both Houses and the Select Committee have expressed concern. I should point out that the public supports constraints in those areas. A while ago, there was a Gallup poll which showed over 80 per cent. of the public supporting constraints in those areas. But it was, surprisingly, one of the polls that the press did not consider interesting enough to print.

I am not talking about protecting the rich, the powerful and the politicians because they have their own ways of protection—and, in public life, one is properly exposed—but about ordinary citizens exploited in situations of painful, family grief. I am talking about the sick and what happens with their medical records and especially about the mentally ill, where there have been many appalling cases of abuse. The range of offences is wide and the bad record of the press is very long. I am unconvinced as to why there is no proposed legislation for those specific offences.

The Government say that there are problems with definition and enforcement. I do not accept that. Moreover, lawyers do not accept that fact. We know in this House that such problems of definition and enforcement have not deterred the Government in many other areas of legislative endeavour. Indeed, we seem to spend much of our time on such cases. I wonder whether it is true, as is widely asserted, that the Department of National Heritage—a decent department—was willing to operate in those areas but the Home Secretary refused because he was afraid to offend the press ahead of an election.

On self-regulation and the Press Complaints Commission, we welcome the recent and proposed improvements of its conduct. The membership is better now with a lay majority; but I believe that it needs an even better lay majority. It was certainly ludicrous when it was composed of representatives of the press. I remember an old saying that, if you were setting up a committee to devise a better mousetrap, you would not compose it entirely of mice. Therefore, it needs a bigger membership and a further tightening of the code would be welcome. I believe that the entrenching of code conditions in journalists' contracts of employment is an improvement, but it should be made universal. I wonder whether there are any proposals for that and if the commission will try to pursue them.

I should also say that the commission only responds to complaints. Many individuals are actually afraid to complain. They feel that the press will be vindictive towards them. They feel intimidated. I believe that the commission should be encouraged and enabled to take the initiative in pursuing the press on matters of genuine public concern. We also think that it should have a better research capacity so that it can pursue such matters.

The Calcutt Report recommended that if the press fails to demonstrate that self-regulation works, there should be a statutory system. On this side of the House, we have reservations about a statutory system; indeed, we note that the Government have rejected it. However, the Government have also rejected the Select Committee's recommendation for an ombudsman. I do not understand that. Therefore, in this, as in other areas, they are doing nothing. Do they feel that self-regulation is now working or that it will work? It is interesting to note that, since the first Calcutt Report, the past five years have seen the most irresponsible press behaviour with the worst intrusions into privacy this century. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what degree of irresponsibility constitutes failure and where they would look again.

As the announcement makes clear, the Government are doing nothing. They are doing nothing on the criminal offences of the various kinds of physical intrusion. I must tell the Minister that that is an area which was very specifically defined in Calcutt, and indeed in the Select Committee's report, and where we on this side of the House could have joined the Minister and formed a great deal of consensus. There is nothing on the Select Committee's recommendations for a civil remedy for the infringement of privacy and nothing on the ombudsman.

The Government are relying on the Press Complaints Commission which is an honourable and well-meaning body which we give all our support. However, we really cannot believe that that will be enough when the press is inevitably a commercial operation and driven by circulation wars. In those situations, we cannot believe that the odd rap on the knuckles from the commission or a rather contrived rebuke from a newspaper proprietor to a journalist—we notice that no one is sacked—will be enough. I have to say that this is an extremely disappointing document.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in deploring what is a very wet and timid response to one of the major concerns of our modern society. To have such a response two-and-a-half years after the Calcutt Report is very disappointing indeed. For our part, we would have wanted the starting point for the Government to have been much more wide-reaching and imaginative. One really has to start with a freedom of information Act and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into United Kingdom law, and then move on from there.

The Government are right to say, as the Statement says, that in every democracy there is a balance to be struck between the rights of individuals to personal privacy and the freedom of the press. We welcome what has been said in the Statement about the strengthening of the Press Complaints Commission. We on these Benches have recently proposed an independent media tribunal. We also welcome the proposals being made to the Press Complaints Commission for a newspaper compensation fund. It is now just two years since the party on these Benches, in the shape of my late noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter, Robert Maclennan, and myself, proposed to the Calcutt Committee in our evidence that newspapers should deposit a bond with the commission each year. That would need to be a significant sum related to the circulation of the publication in question. At the end of the year it would be returned with interest, subject to the proviso that the commission would have the power to retain all or part of it should the publication have broken the code or ignored the ruling of the commission. I am pleased to see some movement in that direction in the Statement.

However, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, just put forward, we also proposed that legal provision should be introduced in terms of intrusion into personal privacy. We proposed that a carefully tailored civil offence of physical intrusion should be introduced to prevent the harassment of individuals by the media. It is right that peeping Toms, aggressive doorstepping and telephone harassment by the media should he regulated by law.

I find the descriptions in the Statement as regards the reasons for not making practical progress in the latter respect, after all the years and all the examinations, deeply disappointing. I suppose that all we can do is to seek some consolation. For those of us who are textual critics of Whitehall documents we must find comfort in the repeated phraseology of, "This is the Government's position at present"—until we know whether the Press Complaints Commission puts its house more strongly in order. There are remarks at the end of the Statement that if the commission does not live up to the Government's expectations then: Despite the serious practical difficulties, legislative matters should not be ruled out". Those of us who know about such matters must recognise, as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, that those are the unmistakable marks of a department that wishes it had been able to go further but which has been defeated in Cabinet by Ministers who are determined in the run up to the next general election to do nothing to offend the great peers of the press.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Donoughue and Lord Thomson, for their remarks, but I must confess that I am most disappointed at the tone of their responses. I am disappointed because they seem to equate the Government's decision with some form of cowardice or inability to come forward with the right solution. This has been, as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, commented, a long time in gestation. When one is dealing with difficult matters it is important to think thoroughly and carefully about what is being proposed. That seems to be a point of view that does not lend itself to the Benches opposite. I am disappointed about that; it does not underscore their claims to government.

This is a difficult issue that we have been dealing with and we approached it from the same kind of perspective as the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue. The key man here is the small man who finds himself subjected to intrusion and finds that his privacy is gravely violated. We have to try to ensure that that does not happen. In this instance we are trying to establish a state of affairs where these abuses do not occur. It is because that is our aspiration that we reached the conclusions that we did. If one looks at the matter in the same way as the Select Committee's report and indeed the Government's response to the Select Committee's report, in terms of individuals' zones of privacy being invaded, there are all sorts and kinds of problems involved in going down a legal route, be it civil law or criminal law. It is no good simply laughing off the problems of definitions. They are not as easy as all that. That is an extremely difficult matter.

Further, in a free society where investigative journalism is a legitimate part of the system, one must have defences, and if the defences are such that they effectively negate the effect of the very rules that are being put in place, that hardly seems to be a way of protecting the small man. Another important matter in this regard concerns the consequences under this sort of system if there is litigation of some kind and the matter goes to court. What we will then find is that, under the rules of privilege, the whole world will become privy to the very breach of privacy which the system is intended not to publicise. That will be an extremely unsatisfactory way, to put it mildly, of dealing with the problem.

We believe that in the real world an effective and robust non-statutory system is that which will deliver best for our citizens. I wish to pay tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Wakeham, who is unable to be with us here this afternoon because, since the advent of his chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission, a number of important changes have already been instituted. In the annex to the Government's response they are set out in some detail. In addition, an exchange of correspondence between my noble friend and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State indicates the kind of direction in which the non-statutory body is likely to move. This, we believe, will provide the best protection for our citizens from the undoubted excesses of the press which have been displayed in a number of well publicised instances over recent years. It is because we believe this is the most practical and effective way of dealing with this serious problem that we have brought forward our response.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, it gives me no personal pleasure to find myself 100 per cent. in agreement with the two spokesmen from the Opposition Benches. Anyone with half an eye will recognise this for what it is: a fobbing off Statement to try to put under the rug something that the Government know should be dealt with because they know that to allow things to continue as they are poses a danger to society generally.

I understand the problems of obtaining statutory powers to try to deal with this matter and I know that to try to copy the French legislation would be difficult and intricate, as has been explained. However, there is no reason at all why the Government cannot make some start in some aspect of it to show that they really mean business. I say this with some feeling because I have tried to do just that. In the previous Session I brought forward my photograph Bill which would have gone some way towards closing a number of loopholes following the unfair and malicious photography that is carried out, while not settling the whole of the problem.

The noble Baroness, who is on the Front Bench at the moment, had to answer on that occasion and give the Government's view. What was the Government's view in the previous Session? It was not a criticism of my little step forward. They said the Government could not follow my proposals because they had their own plans almost ready to put into operation. Now we are given this fobbing off Statement which means nothing. I hope that my noble friend will take the trouble, now that he has responsibility for this matter, to look up my photograph Bill. We got it through the Committee stage and we were almost at the end of the Report stage, after which the matter could have been sent to another place to receive the detailed examination that it deserves.

I am a little worried as to the contribution that my noble friend Lord Wakeham will make because his predecessor led the Opposition at the Report stage as to whether or not we should proceed with my Bill which in no way prevented a bigger move forward later and which in no way inhibited any future efforts to make it even more complete. On the promise that something would be done—nothing was done—we lost that Bill. Is there no way to make the Government realise that as regards this important matter it is better to inch forward in the right direction instead of finding words which merely mean they will put it off for another day, and another day, and another day after that?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for drawing my attention to his photograph Bill. I wish to assure him that I shall consider most carefully the issues that it raises. However, needless to say, I am obviously disappointed by the underlying thrust of my noble friend's remarks. As I said in repeating the Statement to your Lordships, we believe that self-regulation offers the most effective possibility of appropriate regulation in this respect.

It is, I think, agreed among your Lordships that there have been serious problems in this regard in the past. Against that background, if we look at the matter of self-regulation and its recent history in this country, it is important to see whether some of the problems relate to the detail of the system that is in place or whether the very system itself is in some way or other fundamentally flawed and cannot as a matter of principle work properly. It is our view and the view of my noble friend Lord Wakeham that it is the former, and that it is a matter of getting this system to work better which will then mean that it will be able to deliver what I am sure not only your Lordships but the vast majority of the citizens in this country want to see.

I draw the attention of noble Lords to the final words of the letter from my noble friend Lord Wakeham to the previous Secretary of State at the Department of National Heritage. It is appended to the Government's response and states, My central aim is, after all, very close to what I believe yours to be: to ensure proper redress for ordinary people against abuses by the press, while preserving the essential freedoms of the press—without which any democracy will surely founder". That seems to me to sum it up.

Viscount Tonypandy

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am also going to ask him questions that will give him no joy? He has expressed disappointment about everyone's comments, but does he appreciate that the public are aware of the lower standards of the media today and that they are undermining the basic rights of people? That will continue for as long as they have a government who are afraid to do anything. The Minister stood there today and gave the weakest Statement that I have heard since I joined this House.

I join with noble Lords who have spoken both from the Opposition Benches and from the Government Benches in saying that the public want action. It is clear that self-regulation has not worked. It has been given a long time. People are being hurt and will continue to be unless the Government introduce greater penalties than they have introduced this afternoon.

5 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, over anxieties about lower standards. I alluded to them earlier in my remarks. It is because we want to see something happen that we propose to deal with the abuses along the lines I have described. We believe that the flexibility inherent in an effective system of self-regulation will deliver the kind of safeguards that we all want to see.

Needless to say, it is a matter of an effective method of self-regulation. I can only repeat the concluding remarks of my right honourable friend's Statement that: The industry now has to back the PCC and to make self-regulation fully effective. This is an issue which the Government and this House will and should continue to monitor and debate".

To use a vernacular phrase, the ball is now back in the industry's court. There is a PCC with a new chairman who is clearly and emphatically committed to a change in these matters. We believe that this will be the way forward.

Perhaps I may make one final comment. It has been intimated on two separate occasions that the Government's response to this matter has been motivated by a fear of the press. After the events of the past two or three weeks my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has no fear of the press.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. He made reference to a fund. One could call it a slush fund or a hush fund. I am not sure what the right terminology would he. A number of questions arise in relation to the fund. I believe that it is to be run by the PCC and based on a levy from various newspapers that might be affected. Money would obviously be dispursed to complainants.

On what basis would money be dispursed? Would it he disbursed in large amounts to people who court publicity and perhaps find that following a photocall the wrong photograph appears in a newspaper? They have made a mistake. They may be a bit short of money; they make a complaint and a large chunk of dosh is doled out to them to help their finances. Or will it be used for the classic case of the unemployed person who is pilloried as a social security scrounger even though he may be making strenuous efforts to find employment? On what basis will the financial disbursement be made?

Secondly, on what basis will money come from the various newspapers? Will it be a levy based on their circulation, turnover or profits? Will there be any connection between the levy and the number of complaints made against a particular title?

The House must be gravely concerned by the idea that an intrusion into someone's privacy can be compensated by monetary payments. There is no effective redress for that person other than in financial terms. There seems to be no penalty against the perpetrators of invasion of privacy except in monetary terms. Bearing in mind the enormous sums of money that top people pay themselves, is a financial penalty likely to have any effect whatsoever?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, let me make it quite clear at the outset that this is not envisaged in any way as being a system under which unscrupulous newspapers may be able to buy their way into breaching people's privacy. Let us hit that idea on the head at the outset.

The Government find attractive the idea that the PCC should have a fund which would be collected from the various newspapers from which it could pay appropriate compensation. We are not here talking of punitive damages but appropriate compensation to those people who have been affected by breaches of the PCC's code of conduct. We are at an early stage of consideration of this matter. However, it is important to note that in those circumstances the fact that compensation might be payable would not be the only remedy in the hands of the PCC. It is unthinkable that it would be simply a case of buying off an incident which was in breach of the code. The Government believe that this is an attractive idea which will assist in this regard.

In this context it is important to remember that there are a number of civil remedies which may or may not have a bearing on the kind of activities with which the PCC is concerned. I am thinking in particular of the noble Lord's remarks concerning defamation.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I suggest to the Minister that the anxieties of the public are not covered by the notion of a balance between a person's right to a private life and the freedom of the press. The former is overwhelmingly more important. After all, our legal system is based on the notion of the King's Peace, the preservation of the citizen in his life and limb, and also increasingly in our time, and rightly, his reputation. That is surely much more important than the right of tabloid newspapers, without which we could do very well, as the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, reminded us, to print what they like and to obtain information by what means they like.

I find it difficult to appreciate the view of the Minister that there are technical difficulties which prevent the Government from tackling one aspect which Sir David Calcutt emphasised, namely the use of modern technological means such as long-distance cameras and eavesdropping machines of one kind or another. If the Government wish to persuade this House and the country of their sincerity in wishing to see privacy preserved, why can they not bring forward a short Bill, the work for which has already been done by Sir David Calcutt, which would outlaw, with criminal penalties, the use of such instruments? After that we could see whether self-regulation would get us further.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Beloff for drawing our attention to this matter. Clause 5 of the PCC code of practice specifically covers listening devices, which is the general description of the kind of device to which my noble friend referred. That is already in the PCC code of conduct. It has been introduced into the code since it was first written in 1991. Against that background, bearing in mind his comments, surely the appropriate course is to see whether that works. If it does not then the case that my noble friend advances inevitably becomes that much stronger.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I have a simple question for the Minister. I should like him to explain the statement: There are signs of a growing recognition among editors, including past miscreants, that the right of individual privacy is not to be casually cast aside". How does the Minister reconcile that statement with the rush by the tabloid press to pay an American prostitute for information regarding her dealings with a well-known British actor? I understand that the contest was won to the tune of £100,000 by Mr. Hughes.

There was praise also in the report for ticking off an editor. Does the Minister agree that he talks nonsense when he states that there is any desire among the tabloid press to improve?

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, the short answer to the noble Lord is no. The clear response by the industry to the proposals, and the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Wakeham, suggest to us quite clearly that there is the shift in the general direction which I described. I made reference to the reprimand that was given to the editor of a well-known Sunday newspaper. I suggest that that would have been unthinkable even a year or so ago.

However, we believe that what I have described is the case. As I concluded when reading the Statement of my right honourable friend, it is an issue which will be taken extremely seriously by the Government. The matter is now in the hands of the industry. It is up to the industry to operate a voluntary system in accordance with the generally accepted attitudes of this House, which we believe are those of the country at large, or we shall have again to consider the matter.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I seem previously to have heard the words "It is up to the industry" in this connection. I have been listening, therefore, for some crumbs of comfort for those of us who would like Her Majesty's Government to proceed more briskly in the matter. (I am sorry if I am a little obscure in my speech; half my face is still frozen from a recent visit to the dentist.)

It seems to me that there has been insufficient recognition of what my noble friend Lord Wakeham has already achieved by getting into the contract of employment of editors an undertaking to observe the code. That has given a means of removing from office those who offend seriously against the code. But in the final analysis that policy transfers the onus for its observation from the editor to the proprietor. It seems to me that we are now embarking on an important experimental stage. It is just possible that the Government are right to see how that experiment works before they proceed to legislation. If proprietors are more mindful of the rights of the individual and of society as a whole than their employees have so far been, it is possible that a voluntary code may yet be effective.

If such a code is backed up by a pecuniary penalty, as is now suggested, in the form of a significant bond to be retained each year by the commission against good conduct, there will be that pecuniary pressure on the proprietors also to honour the code.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. Despite his half frozen mouth, he has made comments which we believe to be entirely to the point. He shares much of our analysis of the situation and the way to improve things.