§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont rose to call attention to the role of the media in a democratic society; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, there has probably never been a time when the standards and behaviour of the media have been of so much concern to the people of this country. Your Lordships may agree that, as we come close to a general election, it is timely that we should discuss the role of newspapers, radio and television in the governance and preservation of the democratic society in which we live. Of course, we have not even begun to take in the implications of a world in which communications—telecommunications, television, personal computers and the Internet—have all been integrated into one interactive global system. I hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, makes his maiden speech he will have something to say about that.
§ My concern today is with the conventional media. It is through radio, television and newsprint that the vast majority of people in this country will continue to receive their news, information and entertainment well into the next century. During the brief time at my disposal, I wish to discuss one or two ideas about the role of the media as seen from both inside and outside and to ask how the performance of the media measures up against those perceptions.
It would be fair to say that within the media there is a degree of uncertainty, to say the least, about the function of the journalist. There was an interesting example of that in the strange episode of John Birt' s lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, a year or so ago. Some of your Lordships may recall that Mr. Birt, the Director General of the BBC, delivered a fairly blunt criticism of the rudeness and discourtesy which disfigure a good deal of contemporary radio and television interviewing. During the course of his speech Mr. Birt made the following comment, which seems to me to be eminently reasonable. He said:
journalism is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end … we need to reassert that journalism's highest purpose is to inform the citizenry".
He was immediately set upon by his fellow journalists. One correspondent wrote:
Journalism is simply the exercise of free speech … it has no hierarchy of purposes".
Another attacked his comments on politeness and said:
deference to established power is not now, and never has been, the function of a free press".
One columnist took up most of a page in the Evening Standard rubbishing the director general and placing the blame for hostile interviewing on the fact that the persons being interviewed, usually politicians, are slippery liars well practised in the art of evading the issue. Finally, perhaps encapsulating the whole issue neatly, another columnist offered the following definitive pronouncement on her trade. She wrote authoritatively
John Birt was wrong. Disrespect is the first best quality of ajournalist".
§ It is clear from all that, and from other examples which one could enumerate, that some people, although not all, involved in the media are reluctant to accept any responsibility or loyalty higher than that which is summed up in phrases such as, "the public have a right to know", and, "our only business is to publish the news". They seem unable or unwilling to comprehend that the public interest means something more than just what interests the public.
§ It is perhaps relevant and proper, therefore, that those outside the media should ask what are the proper functions of a free press in a free society. Does the almost total freedom which our press enjoys carry with it any collateral responsibilities?
§ I believe that most thoughtful people would agree that within certain limits the media should be free to examine the activities and behaviour of public institutions and public individuals. Responsible investigative journalism is essential if we are to safeguard against the kind of corruption and malpractice which, if not detected and uprooted, can poison the system of liberal democracy.
§ However, there are certain limits and it would be a statement of the obvious to say that those limits are frequently ignored or brushed aside. One of those limits concerns the right of individuals, including those in public life, to a degree of privacy and freedom from harassment. Another concerns the limits of what is known in the code as taste and decency; that is the shorthand for gratuitous displays of sex and violence on television, often in an unpleasantly perverted form, and the use of obscene and offensive language.
§ However, as disturbing as some of those issues may be, and I am sure that other noble Lords will deal with them at some length, I believe that the most important function of the media has to do with what I regard as the clear obligation of a journalist to contribute to the preservation of the political institutions which guarantee all our basic freedoms, including the freedom of the press itself. In that context, it is a matter of some concern that television journalism today is an especially acute example of a modern tendency which is sometimes described as adversary journalism. That is a concept of journalism in which all established institutions and authorities are regarded as alien and threatening, and traditional values and standards as archaic and irrelevant. It has, to a large extent, taken the place of serious journalism, even in some of our quality newspapers. In television it is rampant.
§ The distinguishing characteristic of serious journalism of the traditional kind was that it examined political and social problems almost from the point of view of an alternative government; in other words, as though searching for measures and solutions for which the journalist himself might in other circumstances be responsible. The less responsible approach now taken by the modern adversary journalist is especially striking in the relationship between the media on the one hand and terrorism and other forms of political violence on the other.1520
§ I suggest that in a free society, where democratic processes exist for the redress of genuine political grievances, a free press should have no difficulty whatever in establishing its moral position as between the society in which it exists and anyone who threatens to undermine and destroy it by violent means. Yet in some sections of the media there seems to be an instinctive tendency, when faced with a conflict between parliamentary democracy and the rule of law on the one hand, and on the other hand extra-parliamentary activity, lawlessness, violence and even terrorism, to adopt at best a position of moral equivalence between the two positions and at worst to give the benefit of the doubt to the terrorist, the protest movement, the radical activist or disaffected minorities.
§ That brings me to an issue which has been debated inordinately without any great result, but I beg leave to raise it again. It is the issue of balance, bias or impartiality—whatever one likes to call it. For obvious reasons, that is much more a matter for television and radio than the newspapers. Of course, it is legislated for in both the Charter of the BBC and the Broadcasting Act. It is not—and I hope that no one will believe it is—a matter of bias to the Right or to the Left, to use those old fashioned and somewhat irrelevant political terms. The merits of that argument are often in the eye of the beholder. My real concern is the adversarial journalist's bias against the standards, values and institutions of a civilised society.
As long ago as 1983 in a speech which he made to the Institute of Journalists, the late Stuart Young, who had recently become chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors, reminded his audience that:
the BBC is required under its Royal Charter and Licence to refrain from expressing itself on matters of public policy. Above all, our viewers and listeners expect our journalism to be balanced, fair and impartial'.
§ But I believe that I shall be saying nothing of startling surprise to your Lordships if I say that the BBC manifestly does not always provide balanced, fair and impartial journalism.
Indeed, viewers and listeners have a right to expect even more than that. And it was another BBC mandarin, Huw Wheldon, a man whose professional integrity was beyond question, who pointed out that the concept of balance in media reporting is sometimes assumed to mean a naive and over-simplified requirement to present two sides to every problem. On the contrary, Huw Wheldon said, it is more a matter of truth than of balance. He said that what was needed was:
an intelligent effort to make sense of all the facts, however difficult, and not just some of them".
I believe that it is because the media have failed to accept standards of that kind, put forward from within the media, that they are probably lower now in the public esteem than they have ever been, certainly in my memory. Of course, there is an argument advanced by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book entitled Democracy in America that,
in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits which the liberty of the press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable ills which it engenders".
§ That is very persuasive, but of course it can be pointed out also that that calculus, that proposition, loses its validity if the inevitable ills to which he referred become part of a losing gamble with freedom, democracy and hastening the disintegration of the civic order.
§ As I have tried to suggest, what is at issue here is the role of the media in a free society and in preserving a free society. Clearly there is a very delicate balance to be preserved. Even in free societies or, perhaps I should say, especially in free societies, most governments would prefer a press that was not too critical or inquisitive. When the media become too importunate and inquisitive even the most tolerant and flexible government of any political complexion begin to look for ways in which to prevent them from standing in the way of the policies which they wish to apply and which they have been elected to pursue. When the media behave arrogantly or unwisely, as they do sometimes, a government's desire for regulation attracts increasing popular support, as is happening today.
§ I know that other noble Lords will address the problems of proper regulation. I merely make the point that if proper sensible and intelligent regulation is not effective, it will lead—and it has already led—to demands for some form of censorship of the media. In my view, that would be a major step towards the erosion of a free society. But if it is to be avoided, the media must recognise that while they need hold no loyalty to any government, they have a clear responsibility to democratic society. That includes a proper regard for the conventions and institutions which are necessary to preserve a democratic system.
§ It is not too extreme to say that at present there is a real danger of the weakening of the foundations on which our democratic society rests—for example, Parliament, which is to a certain extent ignored by some of our quality newspapers, an independent judiciary and a secure system of law and civil order. Some people accuse the media roundly of being largely responsible for that decline. While that accusation may be going rather too far, it is possible to argue that even if they are not helping to undermine the values of a liberal democracy, some sections of the media are not exerting themselves unduly to ensure its preservation. It is time that the role of the media in a modern democratic society became the subject of more serious debate.
§ We now have not public discourse but a public brawl. Newspapers mount vicious and often unjustified attacks on the private lives of public figures. Politicians are harassed and patronised by radio and television interviewers who seem to believe that they are more important than the person being interviewed. There is widespread concern among viewers, listeners and readers about distorted news values; deplorable standards of written and spoken English; the deliberate blurring of the line between fact and fiction, especially in the making of what are sometimes called "docu-dramas"; and, most seriously, of occasional blatantly inaccurate reporting based on unreliable sources. In other words, as Huw Wheldon put it, there is a lack of respect not just for the facts but for the truth. It is no exaggeration to say that some, although not all, sections of the tabloid press, radio and television are seen by most people to be debasing the standards of 1522 behaviour and cultural values on which any enduring civilised society must be based.
§ I conclude by saying that it is of course inevitable that proprietors, editors, presenters, writers and interviewers and all the other practitioners of the media will be sensitive to threats of outside control of their activities. But they should never forget that if, as a result of their attitudes and activities and as a result of what they do and do not do, civilised values are debased, free political institutions are weakened and undermined, intelligent debate and rational discourse ceases and democratic society eventually goes into decline, it is the freedom of the press which would be the first freedom to disappear. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Saatchi
My Lords, it is a very great honour to address your Lordships' House for the first time. I must thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for giving me this opportunity to make my maiden speech in this important debate on the media which he has initiated. My remarks touch upon just one aspect of the matter; that is, the question of how best to communicate with the public at a time when the media are such a dominant force in our society.
It could be said that in the Garden of Eden, in approaching the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, humans felt a need to know for the first time. Six thousand years after the Garden of Eden, the need to know has been replaced by the right to know and the media have inherited the role of asserting mankind's democratic right to know.
The media have brought into being a new form of democracy, a democracy of information where information is knowledge and knowledge is power; where information is for the benefit not only of the elite but is properly to be shared among all the people. Indeed, today there is very little that we do not know. We know the income of Her Majesty the Queen; we know the pension of the chairman of ICI; we know which schools produce the best A-level results; we know which hospital has the best record in hip replacements; we know how much tar and nicotine there is in a cigarette; and we know the precise contents of a packet of cornflakes.
That is well and good but perhaps one of the unintended consequences may be that people have so much information that they no longer have time to listen to a long detailed argument. How then should the public be addressed in this "mediaocracy"? Winston Churchill once quoted Mark Twain's letter to a friend which began:I wanted to write you a short letter but I didn't have time".Churchill understood that simplicity is all; but he knew also that to achieve simplicity is very difficult. It requires what Bertrand Russell called the painful necessity of thought. That is why it took longer.
We should remember that the earlier forms of mass communication were not complicated; they were extremely simple. That is why they worked. When President Roosevelt wanted to persuade a profoundly 1523 isolationist America to help our country in its darkest hour, he invented one phrase of two words to help him to do that. He called his policy "lend lease". He explained it very simply too;Your neighbour's house is on fire. He comes to you, and asks if he can have your hose. You say, 'I will not give you my hose. But I will lend it to you. You can borrow it to put out your fire. And when the fire is out, you will return it to me".A simple image of a fire and a hose.
The history of the world is built on such simple and precise use of language. Let us think of the most effective messages over the years. There was nothing long-winded about "Libertë, egalité fraternityé, nor about "Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains." No one had to explain what it meant when they heard John Kennedy say:A torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans";or when they read on the Statue of Liberty:Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!When they said, "Go west, young man", they did so in their millions. No one needed further elucidation when Jesus said:Do unto others as you would be done by",or when Martin Luther King said, "I have a dream".
The great communicators in history have always made things simple: "Your country needs you", "No taxation without representation" or, "One man, one vote". These are not just slogans; they encapsulate whole philosophies, aspirations and political systems. In this media-driven world, which is the subject of today's debate, the public expect and demand that those who come before them to express a view have, before they speak, eliminated vagueness from what they say and distilled their argument down to its essence. It is, in fact, a mark of respect for the listener—a modern form of good manners.
This search for simple language actually has an excellent effect upon the idea being advanced. Its action is that of the threshing machine. It sorts the intellectual wheat from the chaff. It is more than a discipline, it is a test. It forces exactitude or it annihilates. It accelerates failure when a cause is weak, and it clarifies and strengthens a cause that is strong. And that is the best argument I know in favour of its use in all forms of public communication today.
I shall always endeavour to apply that test, with what success your Lordships may judge, to my own contribution in this House. I am grateful to your Lordships' House for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech today. I look forward greatly to the comments and ideas that we may hear during the rest of today's debate.
§ 4.12 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Bristol
My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, first, for giving us the opportunity of debating today,the role of the media in a democratic society";and, secondly, for the fact that it gave the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, the opportunity to make his maiden speech among us. On behalf of your Lordships'
1524 House, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord on actually putting into practice the skills in advertising—the simplicity of the message and the directness of it. We look forward to hearing the noble Lord's further contributions in this House. If they are sharp and to the point, they will be even more appreciated.
Bishops sometimes receive invitations to speak to conferences. I treasure one: a conference of the editors of provincial newspapers when I was invited to speak about a free and responsible press in a democratic society. No Bishop could have been given a task which he took to more readily. I should like to focus on those two issues—a free and responsible press in a democratic society.
Freedom is not just about the right to communicate that which you believe you wish to communicate; it is much more subtle than that. The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has already indicated to us something of the subtleties involved in the term "freedom". Perhaps I may share with your Lordships' House the warning given by the Roman Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in their recent report entitled The Common Good. They made the point:Moral responsibility does not always sell newspapers. We are concerned about the dangerous consequences for the common good when market forces in the mass media are pushed to their logical conclusion, a process of which we see some evidence. Contrary to the optimistic expectations of the beneficial fruits of competition that were made by Adam Smith, there are signs that it is a characteristic principle of newspaper economics that had journalism will drive out the good".The concern that we speak easily about a "free press" needs to be balanced by that freedom which is quite clearly undermined by the economics of the newspaper industry. What the Roman Catholic Bishops say together I would also want to support.
I want to believe that self-regulation through the machinery of the Press Complaints Commission, and so on, will work better in the future than it has in the present and in the past. There are some who would say that the jury is still out: a free press, but a responsible press as well.
It is part of the Jewish/Christian tradition that we say:Thou shall not bear false witness",against your neighbour; nor perhaps be economical with the truth. The truth is at the centre of a free and responsible press in our democratic society.
I should like to raise with your Lordships' House two issues about truth and about responsible reporting. Perhaps I may take the issue of the world of Islam. What picture do your Lordships have when we use that term about Moslems, Islam, Iran or Iraq? Most of the images that we have come to us through television and most of the knowledge that we have has, for many of us, come from newspapers. Yet the world of Islam is a complicated, quite divided at times, world religious community and one which requires subtlety and balance in communicating how it acts and how it responds.
The pictures of the martyrdom to be seen in Iran and the pictures of fundamentalism gone rampant are not balanced reporting about the world of Islam. If you travel to Tanzania, you will find quite a different picture 1525 of Christians and Moslems living peacefully together in a co-existence in which they help each other. Such pictures are not provided for us by and large by our press. The press has a responsibility to educate us so that the world may be a safer place and a place in which there can be true peace.
In my own city of Bristol at the end of the second riots in St. Paul's, the press reporting did not help us bring about a reconciliation afterwards. It was the use of adverbs and adjectives which inflamed the situation and did not help that second stage move on where we wanted to have the possibility of bringing peace, order and justice. A free and responsible press is not just about educating us and not just about providing us with new information; as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, it is something about an alternative government that provides us with a just society. We have much to thank the press for but we need also to be vigilant. It is too important just to let it lie like that.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ Lord Chadlington
My Lords, it is a very great honour to address this noble House for the first time. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for encouraging me to make my maiden speech in this important debate which he has initiated. I should first declare a general interest in that, as chairman of Shandwick, I spend much of my time working with the media. I should also declare a specific interest as I shall be mentioning the work of Bill Gates who, as chairman of Microsoft, is a client of ours.
The impact of technology on the whole world of communications is having, to my mind—and will have—an extraordinary effect on the media as a whole. This will not be a change of degree but rather a change of kind. I believe that it will ultimately render the media unlike anything that has gone before. It may even result in these laws and voluntary codes of conduct, which we often debate, being unable to constrain them.
The key to understanding this is the fact that the control of information is already moving away from the media to the consumer—a consumer who is not constrained by advertising, scheduling or time. Anyone who has access to a PC and a phone line can already tap into unlimited information and opinion—without having to purchase a newspaper or magazine, switch on a television set or a radio station. These sources of information will escalate dramatically.
I give your Lordships one example. I read that just after the year 2000, Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, and Craig McCaw, who have together established the Teledesic Corporation, will launch 840 communications satellites, at a cost of 9 billion dollars, in effect to wire the world. These satellites will carry interactive voice, data and video services. As a result, every corner of the world will be able to obtain instant information from anywhere else on the planet. The impact of these technologies is multiplied still further when we remember that, according to one estimate, some 50 per cent. of the world's population has neither made nor received a telephone call.
1526 There will be instant information, instantly available, globally, in real time. And you will not need a computer to access it. A television, telephone or some other affordable, hand-held device will do.
We already have a medium in use today which illustrates how difficult it will be to protect the interests of the majority in a democratic society in this very near future. Consider the growth and control of the Internet. Currently the Internet links more than 32,000 computer networks to connect at least 2 million computers and over 30 million users via modems and phone lines in 135 countries. Within three years the Financial Times estimates that that will rise by between 30 and 40 per cent. For the first time in mankind's history, we have today a single-language—English—global, completely interactive medium which can pinpoint one person or a group of people with specialist interests as easily as reaching tens of millions.
The Internet and all the other burgeoning technological media provide a new way of thinking, of getting news, of being entertained, usually in an interactive way. However, they all provide real opportunities and threats to our democratic society because, with all this power, they have no gatekeepers. Anyone can access them, anytime and anywhere in the world. There are no rules regarding truth and falsity. Carefully presente0d lies can receive global currency. Unfounded rumour can appear of international importance. They provide worldwide public platforms for literally anyone—pressure groups, political extremists—endowin0g their views with an authority and a currency no traditional news media would allow and indeed it would probably be caught in the legal and voluntary codes which we all know about.
I believe we face a world of information overload, without constraint, without gatekeepers and without editors. These news and information systems can either be used for globalising what is true and balanced about our society or, if they go unchecked, may become a prime source of information and entertainment reflecting the views of the ill-informed, the extreme and those with an interest in undermining our democratic society, not in protecting and promoting it.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord Annan
My Lords, I must first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington, on a really admirable maiden speech. It was beautifully delivered and marvellously lucid about exceedingly complicated matters. We very much hope we shall hear him time and time again in the years to come.
I have two things to say. The first is to lament the state of the quality press in our country. Apart from the Financial Times, where do we find the equivalent of Le Monde, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the Neue Zurcher Zeitung? Serious reporting of news has almost vanished. Our top newspapers fill their space with columnists who discuss the issues in terms of the personalities of the day. Not content with employing dozens of gossip columnists whose task is to dig up dirt on people in public life, serious news is trivialised by treating it as gossip instead of setting out the issues and analysing them.
1527 The excuse the press offer is that readers today are interested in people, particularly those in public life whether they are "pols" or pop stars. I trace the decline of the press back to Private Eye. Private Eye did real service to this country in uncovering crooks, scams and the seedier side of business. But it also was unscrupulous and despicable in the way that it hounded people by printing often untruthful accounts of their private lives. Many of those it libelled could not afford to bring an action—as the prurient, puritanical editor well knew.
That brings me to my second point. We need a law of privacy. Alas, neither of the main parties has the guts to bring one in. They prefer to talk about drinking in the last bar. The consistent exposure of the sexual peccadilloes of politicians has rotted confidence in Parliament. That is what happened in France in the 1930s with Le Canard Enchaine. That is what happened in the Weimar Republic. What was the result? Both France and Germany today have laws that govern the privacy of the individual and their private lives and protect them from exposure. Why cannot we do that here?
It is not only the great and the not so good who suffer. Ordinary people suddenly find themselves door-stepped, hounded, harassed, threatened and offered bribes by the weevils of those sanctimonious editors who talk of the public's right to know and declare "It is all in the public interest". What will happen in a few years' time when Prince William and Prince Henry are out in the world? Shall we allow every single item of their private lives to be scrutinised by the press? We all have private lives that should be inviolate from intrusion.
Moralists may be shocked by this assertion but I shall spare them the lists of Prime Ministers and Cabinet Ministers who are or were adulterers. What worries me is the alacrity with which present Prime Ministers accept the resignation of some of the lowliest of their placemen if a breath of suspicion is aired. Every time one of them resigns, the tabloids and the quality press rub their hands and gloat that they have brought down another man who aspired to exercise power. Bring in a Bill of privacy and that will break their power.
Until then, could we see someone in public life take heart and when challenged say what the Duke of Wellington said to Harriet Wilson when she threatened to reveal their liaison in her memoirs? He said "Publish and be damned". Or would the soapy moralists argue that Wellington should have been sacked from his command in the Peninsular War because he went to bed with a courtesan?
§ 4.29 p.m.
§ Lord Wrottesley
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for introducing this debate and therefore giving me the opportunity for the somewhat daunting task of making my maiden speech. I suppose I should also thank the noble Lord for the chance to speak on a matter I know little about. Listening to the noble Lords who have already spoken on the subject, and looking at 1528 the list of noble Lords who will speak after me, I am reminded of my inadequacy in years as well as experience. Unlike my noble friends Lord Saatchi and Lord Chadlington, who also made their maiden speeches, I have not been blessed with a career in the media. I shall therefore, in the best traditions of this House, be making an amateur judgment. If my youthful impetuosity should lead me to make any controversial statements, I beg your Lordships' indulgence. In keeping with the rather flawed logic behind making a maiden speech on a subject of which I have scant knowledge, I propose to tackle the thorny issue of regulation of the press.
Of all the media, of all the ways in which we choose to inform ourselves, the press is the most anarchic, the most sensationalist, the most controversial, some might even say the most insensitive. For those reasons alone, it can surely be argued that the press needs to be bound by statutory regulation. Resorting once more to the flawed logic for which I am fast becoming renowned, I believe strongly that the press should be self-regulated by a collective sense of responsibility and professional integrity. To deny to the poet or painter expression of what he or she feels is to impose a form of imprisonment. However, I concede that the articles written by many tabloid journalists can hardly be called prose, let alone poetry.
As a medium the press has had a long and chequered history. It has been responsible for sustaining democracies, for maintaining totalitarian regimes and for obtaining scandal. The diversity and variety of publications and newspapers add to the rich and colourful reputation of a medium that informs, investigates and educates. It is a very different beast to other media, with a specific agenda: to sell newspapers. Circulation is its god. The press must appeal to its readers. It has to be partisan, opinionated and sensationalist to survive in a world that is characterised by stiff competition and shifting allegiances.
In such an environment excesses will occur. The argument for regulation is unquestionable. The issue is whether statute law should be used to curb the excesses of an irresponsible press, or whether responsible editors should use the existing framework of guidelines to regulate themselves. The press has been at the forefront of public discussion for centuries. A code of conduct has evolved, avoiding the ugly spectre of statutory regulation, which has not existed since Magna Carta.
The role of adjudicator falls to the Press Complaints Commission, chaired by my noble friend Lord Wakeham. He is the headmaster nobody wants to see. Colleagues and pupils alike respect his even-handed approach, as I am sure we all do. A barometer of the success of the Press Complaints Commission is the number of complaints that are considered: 2,508 in 1995—up 28 per cent. on the previous year. Eight out of every 10 complaints successfully brought to the commission were settled by editors themselves. The figures show that the Press Complaints Commission is winning the confidence of the public and is an effective tool of self-regulation.
1529 In 1927 Judge Brandeis of the Supreme Court of America wrote that,public discussion is a political duty. The great menace to freedom is an inert people".Informed public opinion is the most potent of all restraints upon government. To quote, as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, did, Alexis de Tocqueville,the press is not characterised by the good it does, but by the evil it prevents".
§ 4.33 p.m.
§ Viscount Tenby
My Lords, it is a considerable pleasure to congratulate the third of our maiden speakers today. The noble Lord, Lord Wrottesley, made a distinguished contribution to the debate. I notice that, apart from the media, he lists as one of his interests parliamentary reform. So he may have come to the right place at the right time. He is also, I note, a tobogganist. On the evidence of his speech today, I assure him that in this place it will not be downhill all the way for him. We greatly look forward to hearing more from him in the months to come.
Since time is in such short supply, perhaps I may concentrate on one different aspect of this important topic which we are grateful to my noble friend Lord Chalfont for bringing before us today. I should like to refer briefly to this House's relationship with the media. It is a relationship which has in the past been chequered and, dare one say, largely unsuccessful. It is true that, on the positive side, the televising of this Chamber's proceedings some years ago did much to create any favourable image that your Lordships may enjoy today.
But what of the so-called "factual" programmes about this place? I am trying to choose my words with care. They have been unfortunate, to say the very least. I think that is largely due to a certain naivety in this House in regard to the media. We may in all innocence, for example, assume that all a TV company wants to do is present a strictly factual picture of the Lords at work; and we have almost certainly been flattered by such an interest. Anyone who knows anything about the media, however, is aware that a director starts with a preconceived idea of what he wants out of the finished programme and all filming and interviewing is accordingly ruthlessly tuned to that masterplan.
To that must be added the regrettable fact, already referred to, that our proceedings are seldom reported adequately, if at all, by even the broadsheet press, although that fact is of course an extremely worrying development affecting Parliament as a whole and must carry serious implications for any parliamentary democracy.
So far as this House is concerned, a major cause of this sorry state of affairs may lie in the imprecise and diffuse arrangements in place for dealing with requests from programme makers and feature writers. There is, very properly, the administrative and security side, most ably represented by Black Rod; and then there is what I may describe as the political side, where it may sometimes be difficult to share a common view or compose a speedy response to any media approach, even allowing for the good will inherent in the usual channels.
1530 It would be a pity if, for example, perceived flaws in the composition of this House in the eyes of some should result in anything less than a robust desire to present its work in a favourable light to the outside world. Likewise, we do the image process no favours by always accepting with some self-satisfaction the favourable views of others about us. This House is good at what it does. But in our heart of hearts we all know that it could be even better.
However, all is not doom and gloom, and I welcome unreservedly recent steps taken towards a more professional approach, and in particular the appointment of a highly experienced Senior Information Officer to be responsible for developments in this area. I respectfully suggest that her most immediate task must be to gather these disparate, at times even conflicting, threads together and, with others, to get agreed a suitable chain of command and areas of responsibility which are unambiguous and therefore effective. That is a matter of urgency.
I suppose that the irony of the present situation lies in the fact that we as a House repeatedly boast, quite rightly, about having experts within our ranks on every subject under the sun. That includes the public relations industry. Indeed, we have had conspicuous examples of that today. We probably have a greater concentration of experience and expertise within this industry than almost any other that one can think of. However, I suggest that we have failed to take advantage of that bonus. Can we not begin now to make amends by at least establishing an advisory group, call it what you will, to advise those who must often take difficult decisions in these matters? The stakes are now too high for well-intentioned amateurism or conflicting objectives governed by sectional interests.
I believe this to be an important issue. I would accordingly be grateful if the noble Lord the Minister, with his usual kindness, would convey the gist of his remarks to his noble friend the Leader of the House. What the media have to say about us is important. Let us be sure that it will also be as accurate as we can make it.
§ 4.39 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, in view of what the noble Viscount said about the part played by your Lordships' House in this important matter, is it not rather significant that in this debate the Cross Benches are well filled and so are the Government Benches? But the Opposition Benches are almost empty and there are only two members of the Opposition speaking in the debate, the Front-Bench speakers who will wind up.
As the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, said, broadcasting now influences people's lives so much that it is essential that Parliament should, without interfering with the views expressed, try to ensure that the highest standards are observed. Technically, as was said by the two maiden speakers, we have reason to be proud of the progress made in recent years by the television authorities. Most programmes are presented with great skill and deserve praise. Those on music and opera, history, literature, sport, nature and wildlife are 1531 excellent. One cannot say the same about drama programmes, alas, to which I shall come in a minute, nor programmes about politics, economics, social life and social services. There is an overwhelming tendency in presenting those programmes to concentrate on bad news, even sometimes to the exclusion of good news. If the broadcasters or producers cannot find enough bad news, they inflate some trivial incident so as to turn it into a serious item of bad news.
The broadcasters also ignore or play down the good news about the economy which has done increasingly well in recent years. We do not hear enough about it; people are not told enough. We have done better than other countries in the European Union. That is a deplorable omission and I hope that it will be put right. Economic success must not remain untold.
Another problem to which some of us, including the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, have often drawn attention in past years is the showing in drama programmes of enormous amounts of criminal and sexual behaviour and the use of bad language which undoubtedly has a bad influence. I suggest that it is obviously one of the causes of the great amount of crime and sexual misbehaviour that goes on. The television authorities have been complacent about it. If I may say so with regret, the Broadcasting Standards Commission has so far been much too tolerant.
I am thankful that our splendid Secretary of State for National Heritage recently spoke out against the tolerance of crime and misbehaviour. She deserves all the support we can give her. Broadcasters try to defend some of it by saying that the nine o'clock watershed gives enough protection for children and young people. That is sheer nonsense. It is nonsense partly because some awful programmes are shown before nine o'clock. I am glad to say that I complained of one and the Broadcasting Standards Commission upheld my complaint. It has also been estimated that 53 per cent. of young people have their own television sets which they can turn on when they wish and that 80 per cent. of young people under 16 sit up and watch television.
I conclude with something better. I am glad to say that the financing of the World Service will be £5 million higher than at first intended by the Government. The service does great work for our country. Let us be thankful that it is being given enough money to do so. Long may that last.
English has almost become the international language, the lingua franca of the world. So we must make sure that we give the world, in the display of our own language, customs and behaviour, examples of which we can be proud and not ashamed.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Park of Monmouth
My Lords, I too am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for this debate. Although I pay warm tribute to the cultural and wildlife programmes and many others, I wish to concentrate on presentation of news and current affairs in television and radio. Radio 4 in particular is so highly regarded by its audience that it has a great responsibility 1532 both to get its facts right and to remember, when interviewing political figures in the entirely proper endeavour to inform the public, that the intrusive arrogance of the presenters only too often frustrates that. It may be good drama or even, in a perverse way, entertainment, but it is not informing the public objectively.
That usually admirable programme, "The Moral Maze", erred recently. I heard asserted last week by one of the participants—not one of the team—that Sinn Fein candidates could get elected but were not allowed by the British Government to take their seats at Westminster. Gerry Adams was indeed elected and became Provisional Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast in 1983. He lists himself in Who's Who as an MP. He did not sit at Westminster for the reason that he himself refused to take the oath. That is a point of fact and not challenged.
Too often Martin McGuinness has been allowed by interviewers to get away with lies and evasions which would never have been tolerated from Ministers or any public figure. There is a double standard here which is disturbing in an organisation normally both well informed and aggressive. In the past it has had an honourable reputation in reporting on Northern Ireland. Now, I fear, it seems ill-informed and ill-briefed. If the World Service is indeed expected—as I believe is proposed—to take some of its news from the domestic services, which will be an important issue. The country must watch it.
I deplore, too, the increasing tendency to use documentaries on eminent people to denigrate them on the pretext of taking a more "objective" look at their lives. The Channel 4 programme on Douglas Bader was an example. It elicited two admirable letters in The Times testifying to his courage, humanity and greatness. This was a man. It is demeaning for little men to try to destroy great ones through the media.
However, our chief concern must be to consider what we should do to prevent the media from making policy for the country according to their own agenda, which is usually a short-term agenda. Increasingly, Ministers seem more concerned to survive an interview with Jeremy Paxman or John Humphrys than to speak to the country through the House of Commons. Too many civil servants from the MoD to the NHS have to spend more time satisfying often wholly unrealistic commitments under the Citizen's Charter—mission statements, market forces and so forth—which now proliferate throughout the country. It is not right that every public body from Royal Commissions to hospitals should be judged by whether they answer the telephone on the fourth ring or whether they have succeeded in achieving a telling sound-bite on television. It is also disturbing, reading the two Civil Service White Papers, to find how much concern is shown there about the presentational skills of civil servants rather than their ability and duty to provide wise advice.
But that is not the fault of the media; it is the fault of government and of political leaders on both sides and, indeed, our fault too. Until they have the courage—as some, like my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, do—to do their jobs without allowing the 1533 media to dictate the agenda, the media will continue to perform the wrong role in a democratic society. It should illuminate events, not seek to influence them.
Everyone knows the definition of those who exercise power without responsibility. I say that with regret because I know many admirable journalists. But it is up to us all to defend the truth by rebutting inaccurate and biased reporting whenever it occurs. Too often we shrug and let it pass. Democracy is worth a little hard work.
§ 4.50 p.m.
§ Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
My Lords, there are too many regulators and ombudsman-like bodies dealing with radio and television. The result is clear: the public interest is not represented in so powerful a way as the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, and many other speakers would desire.
In the past, when the BBC enjoyed a monopoly position, the governors were more able to fulfil their role as guardians of the public interest. The creation of commercial television meant that both the governors and the IBA were inevitably committed to the success of their organisation as against the other. The inevitable result was that the public interest was diluted. The governors were in a sense directors of the BBC.
In 1977 the Annan Commission noted that neither the governors nor the IBA were making satisfactory responses to public complaints. As a result of that commission the Broadcasting Complaints Commission was set up to deal with complaints of unfairness and infringement of privacy. I was chairman of that commission until two months ago. It is interesting that the Annan Commission in 1977 said that matters of taste and decency could be left entirely to the broadcasters. Yet, within a decade, as a result of public complaint, the Broadcasting Standards Council was set up. It is now to be combined—I supported the combination—with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. Worthy though those bodies are, they are small and lack teeth and resources.
While I was chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, it made a severe adjudication against a Carlton true-life film called "Beyond Reason". What did Carlton do? It immediately showed the film abroad and made a tidy profit out of it. The fact is that those bodies—the standards council and the complaints commission, even combined, are too weak to influence broadcasters. The governors of the BBC are too closely tied to the interests of the corporation, both its broadcasters and administrators, to best be guardians of the public interest. I suggest that the recent problems over the World Service give certain evidence for that. It is interesting that the Independent Television Commission, the successor of the IBA, as a result of a previous Broadcasting Act now no longer the broadcaster, illustrates the advantages of independence and detachment.
I suggest that the only way in which we can attempt to solve the problems we are discussing today is to set up a national broadcasting commission such as exists in Canada. It would deal with both public and commercial broadcasting and, unlike the Canadian model, could 1534 include an ombudsman role with regard to fairness and privacy as well as deal with taste and decency. It would be both independent and detached. It would not fulfil the role of a director of a broadcasting organisation and it would be very well placed to make some effort to regulate broadcasting in the new and complex digital age.
The picture that was described to us in a maiden speech demands a powerful independent and detached authority. I suggest that in so combining the governors, the ITC the Radio Authority and the complaints commission and standards council in one body, we might at least make a start at solving these problems. Otherwise this debate will go on year after year and we shall make the same complaints and get nowhere.
§ 4.55 p.m.
§ Lord Ashburton
My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a very good opportunity to air what are extremely important, extremely complex and extremely delicate matters. First, let me say that I have not heard a better clutch of maiden speeches in your Lordships' House than we have enjoyed today. I also say quickly that I believe it is much too easy to say that the media have power when what they have is influence. There is a world of difference between the two words.
I am sorry that the debate is limited for time. Undoubtedly we could go on discussing this matter for much longer. Partly because of that and partly because I rarely watch television, I shall not attempt to address any of the issues that that occasionally frightening medium raises. Visual images are terrifyingly influential. I just say that Matthew Parris, in the Spectator of 20th April this year, focused with considerable wit on the implications of the way programmes are made. I commend his article to your Lordships. In fact, if I did not think that I might infringe copyright, I should have brought copies with me. The article was entitled "Those who work in television lie to each other, lie to the people who go on it and lie to the viewer". I would also recommend, but for the fact that I have mislaid it and cannot remember the author's name, a book by an American, entitled "Amusing ourselves to death". It is a polemical attack on the way in which mass visual communications have inevitably played a large part in reducing the level of comment and discussion of important matters to strings of entertaining sound bites.
The book reminded me forcefully of the time when a number of us in the City wished to try to get rather better comment and took television training. I remember sitting down with half a dozen others and our trainer saying, "I expect you'll be surprised to know that you've got it all wrong. Television is not a way of getting across your opinions. It is a way of entertaining people. Unless you entertain, you will not be on again and, indeed, if you don't entertain collectively, the producer of your programme will find his programme is off the air."
I shall not address the issue of concentration of ownership. Nor shall I comment on the issues raised by commerciality. All the press and most of TV have to reward their owners. It seems to me a waste of time 1535 to hanker after a system in which high minded, disinterested people run newspapers and television stations with the principal aim of improving society. I am convinced that within the present imperfect media set-up an acceptable degree of high minded, responsible reporting and comment is by no means out of reach of at least the press and the printed word. Nor shall I address the questions of taste and personal privacy, which we all feel are scandalously abused.
I should like to focus on the issues of accuracy and the separation of comment and news reporting. I believe that we are often—not always—not very well served on those two issues. I say this despite being a great fan of the printed press and as one who gets by far the greater part of his news and comment from it.
I know that it is easy as one gets older to look back and see better times. I know also, as we all do, how difficult it is to be objective in matters of this kind. But we must not be deterred by that difficulty from arriving at our own judgments. I myself have had plenty of personal experience of inaccuracy. If we had more time, I could quote examples at length. The debate about Europe is a clear and lamentable example going on right at this moment. Certainly, I get the impression from former journalists of my acquaintance that my views are definitely not confined to those outside their profession.
Do accuracy and the separation of news and comment really matter? I believe that they are vital because what is written and what is shown on TV definitely influence people. If it did not do so, advertising would be increasingly ineffective. It is not good enough for the press to shrug off criticism of inaccuracy by saying, "It will all be forgotten tomorrow". No doubt a lot of it is; but there is an awful lot that is not. One only has to listen to people talking to each other about something they have read or seen to realise that the press and TV have a legitimacy that they all too often do not deserve.
The fact is that those who remember things are the most important; they are the ones who are interested in the subject being covered and who are concerned with what is going on. For them to be misled is inexcusable. Nor is it good enough to say that journalists have to meet deadlines and that this precludes proper research or verification. If there is any doubt, then they should not publish. I know it is hard and may affect the success of one organ, in commercial terms, as against another. But it is right that they should not publish.
The adulteration of news with opinion is not new, but if the dissemination of facts is a pre-requisite for sensible discussion of the implications of those facts, then news and opinion have to be separated. The debate on Europe at the moment demonstrates that yet again. I know it is difficult; I know it is often caused by lack of time; but it is not good enough. The least we can do is draw attention to it and hope for improvement. Journalism is too important for it to become a series of ego trips for young people on the make.
The licence to publish, which is the tacit agreement between society and the news media, demands that the highest standards of accuracy are observed. I am disinclined to blame the owners of newspapers and 1536 inclined to believe that the responsibility must lie with the editors. Wherever responsibility lies, the press and TV are a vital part of the democratic society we know and they owe it to us always to act in a way that shows they deserve their position.
§ 5.2 p.m.
The Earl of Cromer
My Lords, perhaps I may join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for so trenchantly initiating a debate which raises issues that go to the heart of government in an open society. First, I should declare a family interest for my kinsman, the noble Lord, Lord Rothermere, presides genially over Associated Newspapers.
It was exactly 30 years ago that I left these shores to live in the Far East. There I was gainfully employed as a journalist covering several Asian countries. It did not take me long to discover that in many countries in that part of the world both free reporting and real democracy are either banished or emasculated. Democracy and a free press are as inseparable as tyranny and censorship. Here a free press is part of the air we breathe, so much so that we are in danger of taking it for granted.
In the Far East I found mass circulation newspapers in totalitarian countries that purported to be the voice of the people but in fact permitted no breath of criticism of the ruling regime and no genuine freedom of expression to their readers.
In Britain we have real people's dailies; "tabloids" they are called. How often that word trips with a sneer off the tongue of the powerful and the privileged. To be sure, the tabloids are no respecters of personages. They can be brash, unruly and raucous. They have an insatiable appetite for scandal. They probe; they pry; they print things about important or notorious men and women which important or notorious men and women would rather they did not print.
But there are, these days, those who are not amused by the tabloid press. In recent years there have been growing demands from among the great and good for newspapers to be curbed. Their preference is for some sort of privacy law. Reports have been commissioned; Green Papers produced. An array of possible instruments of potential legal torture has been brandished with intended deterrent effect before the eyes of editors and journalists. But the Government—wisely, in my view—have refrained from committing themselves to statutory action.
I could be mistaken but I have not sensed any strong public demand for a privacy law. There is no evidence which I have seen to indicate a rising incidence of unwarrantable intrusion by newspapers in recent years into the private lives of ordinary people. If anything, the reverse. My guess is that one running story above all others generated a political head of steam for the enactment of a privacy law. I refer to press coverage—some of it undoubtedly deplorable—of the circumstances that led to the break-up of a royal marriage. With that in mind, I do understand why, in this Palace of Westminster, a privacy law has its proponents.
But we should be wary, very wary, of passing general laws which may derive emotive force from so special a circumstance. Disclosure is the life blood of a robust 1537 press. There is all the difference in the world between a press release and a newspaper story. Press releases are what those who write them want publicised; newspaper stories offer their readers a revealing glimpse of what those in charge of official information would rather keep confidential, secret, or (dare I say it?) private.
Powerful establishments—elected or not—will use every means at their disposal to manage the news. They love to brief—and loath leaks. Give those in positions of authority or power a choke chain to discipline the hounds of the press and as fast as they can find a judge to issue an injunction they will use it.
Enthusiasts for a privacy law seek to make it more palatable by pointing out that it would contain a public interest defence for newspapers. What a gold mine for lawyers that would be as they argue interminably over just where the line should be drawn in each case between the individual's right to privacy and the public's right to know. I am not persuaded that we should go down that statutory route. Newspapers are not above the law. But nor should they be subject to special laws. Self-regulation is still the best way for the British press, and for democracy.
With a more sharply focused code of conduct and under the shrewd and firm guidance of my noble friend Lord Wakeham I believe that the Press Complaints Commission is doing a good job. The more mindful editors are of censure from the PCC, the more confidence the general public can have in the regulatory value of that body.
There has been much talk of journalists "drinking in the last chance saloon". As one of our number who can hear the constitutional tumbrel rumbling outside this very Chamber, I must say, in conclusion, that I have very considerable feeling for them.
§ 5.7 p.m
§ Lord Gisborough
My Lords, the media are keen to accuse politicians and others of telling lies, yet many members of the media are themselves masters of inaccuracy and often totally mislead their readers with complete disregard for the truth.
Whenever one goes to an event and reads about it afterwards, one cannot recognise it as being the same event. Film makers are happy to distort history to tell a good tale; interviewers will create the picture that they want and not what they find. For example, one lady was interviewed, Iwas told, due to her prowess in the field of cooking and asked to give a dinner party for the BBC to film. After dinner the guests were inveigled out of the house and the TV crew then upset all the bottles and glasses over the table in order to pretend that the party had been an orgy. That was totally dishonest reporting and luckily it was not allowed to show the film.
Another example nearer home was the presentation by "Cutting Edge" of the House of Lords. The director set out to prove her prejudice and, by careful selection, she succeeded; she quite deliberately and blatantly misled her audience.
The media picture themselves as the upholders of rectitude, but many members of the media have neither principles nor scruples. Many programmes seem to revel 1538 in how many four-letter words can be used in a fixed time. Can one wonder that the standard of morals, of manners and of speech have so deteriorated? Film and video have revelled in the presentation of sadistic violence, and there is a claim by TV that it does not influence people's actions. I can give two examples. "Money Train" pictured an inflammable liquid being sprayed into a ticket clerk's booth and set afire. The following day an identical incident took place in Brooklyn, resulting in the horrific death of a ticket clerk. In July 1996 it was reported in The Times that a 14 year-old schoolboy tried to cut off a woman's head with a nine-inch carving knife in Lincoln, consequent to watching a horror film, "The Predator", while under the effect of LSD.
There is not the slightest doubt that some people have their fantasies fuelled by violence and pornography and cease to be in control of themselves. They have to be punished for the subsequent crimes they commit, but the blame lies with the subversive media and the purveyors of violence who temporarily turn those people into zombie-monsters. Famous actors are now speaking out against Hollywood's obsession with the glorification of anti-heroes, with their greed, vulgarity and violence.
Then there is the whole question of intrusion into privacy. The private lives of public people are constantly exposed, even what they did 30 years ago. What on earth has it to do with anyone else what people have done in the past with their private lives as long as it does not affect or have a direct bearing on their official position? I hope we will not become like America where good men are deterred from standing for office because they fear the exposure of some indiscretion many years back in their lives.
Media intrusion destroys lives without any scruple, condemning as guilty without trial men who are left with their lives wrecked for the sake of increased circulation. It is sad that heroes are constantly debunked. It is a natural instinct of man to want to look up to a leader, whether it is dad at the head of the table or royalty at the head of the country. Every leader is human and has his faults, but the media do us no service by constantly trying to identify them. Let us be allowed to keep people in our minds as heroes for us to try to emulate. Perhaps we would then find it easier to behave better ourselves to our neighbours.
Of course the media have their good programmes and their good reporters, but there is a lot of scope for them to clean up their own act before they criticise others. The media have power without responsibility. They must exercise that power with care.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ Lord Palmer
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Chalfont for his persistence in keeping this important subject on the Order Paper for so long.
Having been the victim of media hounding—indeed, international media hounding—for a week, I just wish to make one point and give several examples to back up my plea for a greater degree of accuracy in the media. But before doing so I would like to expand on one of the points of my noble friend Lord Annan. I feel certain 1539 that the fear of media exposure is what keeps many intelligent and gifted people out of politics. That must be to the detriment of our country. I also completely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton. The nine o'clock watershed, particularly in the age of video recorders, is a complete and utter farce, and I would urge the Minister to look once again at this most important aspect. It is also interesting to note during a debate in your Lordships' House on the media how remarkably empty the press box has been.
We are often told never to believe what we read in the papers but sadly I fear that the vast majority of people do believe exactly what they read. That is why I believe we must aim for a higher degree of accuracy and truth within the media. The examples I wish to give are as follows. Last week in the press an elderly Labour Peer who has served his country with distinction was criticised for having a 100 per cent. attendance record in your Lordships' House and yet had only voted in 33 per cent. of the Divisions. The public are unaware that Divisions often take place at night when, if he has any sense, the noble Lord in question is safely tucked up in his bed. But that was not made clear or implied in the article.
Secondly, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, in another article last week, was reported as being the heir to Lord Burleigh. It really should be simple for reporters to check their facts. Last Saturday, the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, had been raised to the rank of a Duke in a broadsheet magazine. Surely these simple mistakes ought not to occur. But perhaps what I minded most of all about recently was a newspaper article on the Dukes of the United Kingdom. I feel certain that most of what was written was irrelevant, uninteresting and prefabricated. I know for sure that in one particular case an article about one Duke was simply not true and it could certainly have caused a great deal of undeserved distress. It is for these reasons that I believe we must all strive to have a much greater degree of accuracy in our media.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for bringing this debate to the attention of your Lordships today. Let me say from the outset that I believe strongly in free, democratic and responsible media. That is one of the great freedoms of our country.
The Press Complaints Commission was set up in 1991 and after 18 months Sir David Calcutt in his report concluded that press self-regulation under the Press Complaints Commission had not been effective.
I shall make three points. First, the code of practice, ratified by the Press Complaints Commission on 30th October this year, states in clause 1 that newspapers and periodicals should take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material. Clause 3 states that newspapers, while free to be partisan, should distinguish clearly between comment, opinion and conjecture. While these are welcome codes 1540 of practice, it has to be emphasised that inaccurate reporting can mislead and undermine the perception of the public, which is a most serious matter.
If a more responsible attitude from the media is to be established, it will require a strengthening of the disciplinary powers of the Press Complaints Commission chairman, which should include the authority of dismissal of those responsible for frequent breaches of the code. In addition, a statutory press ombudsman should be appointed to whom the public can appeal. He should be given statutory powers to deal with the wording and prominence of apologies and authority to order payment of compensation and the imposition of fines. But are compensation and fines any real deterrent to the media? In cases of frequent and persistent breaches of the agreed code the ombudsman should have the power to impose limited bans on the publishing and broadcasting of the media.
My second point concerns clause 4 of the code of practice, which covers intrusion and inquiries into an individual's private life without his or her consent, including the use of long-lens photography. This clause is only justified when the facts show that the public interest is served. I cannot agree that the interests of the public take precedence over a right to privacy; and if the interests of the public are so significant, then the recognised agencies of the police, Customs and Security Service should be involved and not journalists.
I disagree with the Government's conclusion that there is not sufficient public consensus on which to base statutory intervention. There is little doubt in my mind that there is a strong feeling within the general public that the media abuse the rights of privacy. May I ask my noble friend from what evidence and on what basis the Government came to this conclusion? They have stated that, in principle, there is a case for the introduction of offences in relation to the intrusion on privacy. In this respect I believe that Her Majesty's Government should try harder to construct legislation which in practice would be sufficiently workable to be responsibly brought to the statute book.
I now come to my third and last point, the protection of military information in time of war and conflict. It is a most important subject, as without great care it can put at risk the lives of our servicemen and impose unnecessary stress on military commanders. To illustrate this point, during the Falklands campaign copy was filed through a ship's captain which read, "We are sailing in thick fog in the South Atlantic". The words "in thick fog" had to be deleted because there was only one area of fog in the whole of the South Atlantic and this would therefore have pinpointed the position of the fleet to the enemy. Likewise, there is a requirement to ensure that reporters on their own initiative do not use their satellite dishes reporting in real time to the media systems back in the United Kingdom. As General Cordingley said in the Gulf War, journalists should allow their copy to be seen by the military before transmission to correct factual errors and to stop security breaches.
In time of conflict and war, some form of censorship will be necessary and I should like to ask the Ministry of Defence, through my noble friend, what action has 1541 been taken to implement the recommendations contained in General Sir Hugh Beach's report in Command Paper 9112.
Overall, I am left with the feeling that press self-regulation will work only if a statutory ombudsman is appointed with the appropriate sanctions and strong deterrents to deal with the failure of the media to report accurately. Even tighter codes of practice need to be established for intrusions into privacy; and sensitive censorship will have to be agreed for times of war and tension. This will have to be carefully balanced with the important need for the public to be fully informed of the conduct of war operations.
§ 5.23 p.m.
§ Lord Burnham
My Lords, I am extremely displeased with my noble friend Lord Cromer, who said everything that 1 wanted to say but a great deal better. However, I shall go on to lament that among the many noble Lords who have put down their names to speak in this debate we do not see the names of the noble Lords, Lord Stevens, Lord Rothermere, and Lord Hollick, nor those of the past editors of The Times and the Daily Telegraph, the noble Lords, Lord Rees-Mogg, and Lord Deedes, all gentlemen who may be expected to have the most particular interest and expertise in this subject. Nor, but for different reasons, do we see the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hussey. I fully understand his case: within the confines of the time allowed he would not have been able to give the subject the attention which he could undoubtedly give it.
The proprietors have never been good at explaining the vital importance of newspapers and television to the life of the country or at defending their products against the powerful attacks which are made upon them. It is thus left to lesser mortals, such as the old hack and noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, to whom we must be most grateful for today's debate, to do it for them. Indeed, 1 must declare an interest as a pensioner of the Daily Telegraph.
It is impossible to deny the excesses and aberrations of the media, particularly of the newspapers—excesses which are fostered to some extent by the journalists themselves. Nobody who has joined in the schools of journalistic excellence which gather, or rather used to gather, in such establishments as the Mucky Duck, the Stab in the Back or the Kings and Keys can doubt the delight with which they expose the activities of those who would rather not have their activities exposed.
It is only too easy to show how newspapers have printed items for which there can be little possible excuse for exposure in terms of morality, propriety or, for many people, interest. It has to be said, however, that the majority of the British public have not the sophistication of Members of your Lordships' House. The tabloid papers print what their readers want to see. The phrase "lowest common denominator" comes easily to mind. If the readers did not want to read what is printed, they would not buy such papers.
Throughout the debate on Monday on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill ran the thread of the media coverage of Dunblane, with particular reference to, the 1542 disgracefully hysterical attacks in the Sun and Daily Mirror on my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. But sadly—this is not intended as a pun—the regulation of newspapers is a matter of black and white and it is not, and should not be allowed to be, a question of allowing those sins that we have a mind to and banning those that we are not inclined to.
The code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission, whose chairman, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, is also absent from the list of today's speakers—although he may still be recovering from being attacked by my wife in another forum yesterday—covers all that could be required. The code is, however, a fantasy unless the newspapers are prepared to accept the principle of effective self-regulation; and that, in the opinion of those who disapprove of the activities of the press, they have not shown themselves prepared adequately to do in spite of their affirmation to the contrary.
It is a matter of balance. Either newspapers may publish within the bounds of libel or they may not. The emasculation of the press in France and Belgium and in all countries where it is controlled and censored by government is the reason why corruption is able to flourish. The noble Lord, Lord Annan, delights in the privacy laws in France. Does he also delight in the crookeries that go on in such countries because of the inability of their media to expose them? Unless the press has the legal right and the will to expose the ills of our society, it must fail. Its duty is "to inform, to instruct, and to entertain" and of these "to inform" is the most important—to inform about all that is going on, not just what a certain body of society or the Government think that it should. It is ironic, however, that the most regrettable of the undesirable effects of censorship should have come from the newspapers themselves in the shape of Robert Maxwell who stopped anything appearing in his newspaper or, by threats of libel, in others. I hope that that was just one aberration.
I once wept on the shoulder of my right honourable friend Edward Heath when I was done up in Private Eye, to which reference has also been made. Mr. Heath just looked at me and said, "Once?". We all have to grin and bear it for the greater good.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
My Lords, this debate started with a very authoritative and knowledgeable speech by the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, as one would expect. Since then we have had three fascinating maiden speeches and many varied contributions from all parts of the House.
Newspapers have always criticised the Government—'twas ever thus, and I hope that it will continue. We need a free press. Censorship would be fatal, except in time of war, as my noble friend Lord Vivian pointed out. However, in recent years one has sometimes wondered whether the newspapers have not accrued unto themselves an excessive amount of authority. Whole campaigns are conducted; politicians and public figures are hounded and private lives are invaded. I sometimes wonder who is governing the country, Parliament or the 1543 press. The press seems to be setting the agenda and Parliament seems to be completely mesmerised, if not paralysed, by it. I am afraid that it sometimes seems as if Parliament connives with the press.
If the press is to claim the moral high ground, it must realise that it has taken on a very great responsibility. I like to think that it will act accordingly, but I rather fear that that may represent a triumph of hope over expectation.
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, I intervene very briefly to call your Lordships' attention to one influence on the destructive role of the media in our democratic society. This is the influence of our cultural and media studies courses in higher education and perhaps elsewhere in our education system. Many of the graduates from those courses go on to work in our media. As far as I know, the vast majority of those courses are still in the grip of bias from the gender, race and class brigade who teach them.
I am not suggesting any attack on academic freedom, but your Lordships will be aware that there is no system of quality control as such in higher education, merely a system of quality assurance. So I feel sure that an unbiased public examination of the content of these courses would lead to their becoming more balanced academically. That, in turn, would lead to a gradual but valuable improvement in the quality and the views of those who work in our media.
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, I must congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, on having a former Times journalist's eye for a good story. If all noble Lords who had originally put down their names to speak in today's debate had done so and if we had all been given somewhat longer in which to speak—say, 10 minutes—the debate would have lasted six or eight hours.
We have heard three outstanding maiden speeches. I can advise the noble Lord, Lord Wrottesley, that he should not worry about describing himself as "an amateur" because he will quickly find that that is a badge of honour in this House.
I have three reasons for congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Chadlington. The first is the natural courtesy of this House. The second is that it really was a very good speech. Thirdly, congratulating the noble Lord is a good career move for me because he is the chairman of the company that employs me.
The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, was modest in not mentioning among his list of the world's great slogans "Labour isn't working". I was in the opposite bunker when that campaign was launched. It was like discovering that the other side had a new secret weapon. It changed in a qualitative way the relationship between politics and the media for others to follow, in much the same way as the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, my noble friend Lord Mayhew and Mr. Wedgwood Benn changed 1544 television politics in the late 1950s on behalf of the Labour Party. The 1979 Saatchi campaign was a quantum leap.
One matter that has not emerged in today's debate is that politicians are not entirely passive creatures in their relationship with the media. Over the past 40 years the relationship between politics and the media is one in which politicians have become technically more sophisticated. Politicians have become media trained and groomed. Expressions such as "spin doctor", "negative campaigning", "rapid rebuttle units" and "soundbites" have entered our language as politicians try to influence the media. Political parties devote massive resources to press relations. To understand that one has only to look at the new Labour Party media centre on Millbank.
The two main political parties in this country will probably spend about £50 million in the coming General Election campaign. A great part of that money will be spent in trying to influence and shape the media. We have come a long way since the time that Francis Williams sought to persuade Lord Attlee to put a news tape machine in 10 Downing Street on the grounds that it would give him the cricket scores. Twenty years later when I worked at Downing Street it was still referred to as the cricket machine.
Today, political leaders are obsessed with the media. At the same time, the media have become more intrusive into the private lives of great men. One wonders which Prime Ministers would have survived under today's media spotlight—certainly not Lloyd George or Churchill.
The media seek not just to report news but to shape it. The headline "It was the Sun that won it" is disturbing, not least because subsequent academic studies showed that indeed the Sun might have won it last time for the Conservatives. It is worrying that this time there are all the signs that other newspapers want to compete with the Sun, not in reporting and analysing the election campaign, but in influencing it. Will it be the Mirror that wins it as well as the Sun or whatever? Even the broadsheets have stopped reporting parliamentary speeches. True analysis is being increasingly replaced by polemics. This is true not just of the General Election. Others have referred to the reporting of European matters in the same vein.
It is not only in print that the responsibility to educate and inform has slipped into a backwater. Peak time television makes no attempt to report the parliamentary day other than in terms of soundbites and knockabout. There is pressure not only on commercial channels to move news and current affairs to the sidelines. One is told that viewers cannot concentrate on any issue for more than three minutes. Great problems are reduced to cartoon form. Every interview has to be a demonstration of interviewer machismo.
The result of all this manipulation by politicians and aggression by the media is that the public is both cynical and apathetic about the parliamentary and democratic process. Of course, the media have a duty to rake for muck and expose sleaze and to probe and to question. But it is no accident that at a time when politics and 1545 politicians are held in such low esteem by the public the public's view of the media is not much higher. I believe that there is a need for both politicians and the media to put their respective houses in order. There is a need for a freedom of information Act to open up our over-secretive government. There is also a need for stronger self-regulation to protect the individual from invasions of privacy. My party, like others, draws back from advocating a privacy law, but there are signs of a need to strengthen self-regulation. We look to the media to do that.
There is a need to protect both the print and broadcast media from the over-concentration of power and ownership. In that regard, one looks closely at the decision to be made by the Government about digital access and the growing power of Mr. Murdoch. I know very well that Mr. Murdoch has shown entrepreneurial courage in attaining his present position, but I believe that he has been amply rewarded for that already. There is now a need for control and responsibility.
That brings me to the role of the BBC. As the communications revolution gathers pace, it becomes more and more important that the BBC is retained as an iron pole of quality in our broadcasting system. I do not agree with many of the criticisms that have been made tonight of the BBC or the broadcasters. However, if one is spending £1.5 billion of public money, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and his colleagues have every right to question it and the BBC has every responsibility to answer their criticisms. But there is danger that there will be a Gresham's Law of broadcasting under which the trivial will force out the serious and the mission to entertain will swamp that to educate and inform. In those circumstances, it is essential to retain the BBC's capacity to fulfil its charter responsibilities.
I recently wrote to the Minister about the impending rise in the BBC licence fee. The Government have been reticent in this matter. I hope that that is because a great and successful battle is being waged within government to guarantee that, having given the BBC a charter to carry out its public service responsibilities, it is to be given the revenue and means to carry them out.
Relations between politicians and the media should never be comfortable and cosy. Both of us are essential to the workings of a democratic society but we fulfil different roles. To fulfil our respective roles requires mutual respect. That respect must be earned by both politicians and journalists. Perhaps I may quote the late Lord Bancroft. He said,Conviction politicians, yes. Conviction Civil Servants, no".One may equally say, "Conviction journalists, no", when conviction gets in the way of truth and objectivity.
We must not get the situation out of balance. There were no good old days. It is 60 years since Baldwin spoke about the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages—power without responsibility. It was just over 40 years ago that Aneurin Bevan said that this country had the most prostituted press in the world. The idea that things have become worse may be somewhat erroneous. It is important to remember when discussing the tension between the media and politicians that recently in Serbia when people wanted to 1546 demonstrate their desire for freedom they lit candles outside the television station; and the last message from the radio station in Hungary in 1956 as the Soviet tanks rolled in was, "Don't forget us". We need good democrats to make democracy work, and it is the responsibility of both the politicians and the media to make sure that they are in good supply in our society.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde
My Lords, I, too, join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for putting down this debate for today. It is an issue that he has followed assiduously. We shared many a late night earlier this year on the Broadcasting Bill. It is said that timing is everything. This week the House Magazine has a major article on the media. That article, this debate and the announcement of the regulation of digital broadcasting which was made yesterday by the Government are all timely.
Members of this House are greatly obliged to the noble Lord for giving us the opportunity of today's debate. My noble friend Lord Donoughue very much regrets that he is not here today standing in the place in which I am standing. That is because the dreaded "lergy", the flu, has knocked him down. I extend his apologies to the House.
We have heard three maiden speeches, all from the same Benches. Two of the new noble Lords come from a similar discipline. I hope I am following the urging of the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, in saying that the three speeches were on the button; they touched the spot. I look forward to hearing the contributions that all three noble Lords will make in this House in the coming years, particularly on the challenging issues of the convergence of the media, the super highway, the Internet, and all the global issues which are very much the issues of today.
The role of the print and broadcast media is central to any democracy. We are unanimous on that. The quality of that media can influence the workings of democracy in either a positive or a negative way. For the media to influence positively they have to be free, independent and carry responsibilities—the responsibility to inform, to explain, to report the fact and, yes, to entertain. Some noble Lords, as we have heard during the debate, do not feel that those responsibilities have been honoured fully by the media.
In this House, I am reminded almost every day that our nation is a hotch-potch of contradictions, of checks and balances, and of many imperfections. That was brought into sharp focus for me on Monday this week when I came to the House and tried to pick my way through a car park jammed with limousines bringing in speakers I had neither seen nor heard before in this Chamber, most of whom were here to oppose a Bill which the public so clearly want on the statute book. So no one is perfect. No one reflects perfectly the views of the wider world.
Do we really kid ourselves that we wish to return to the so-called golden age of reporting? If I had been born at the time of the abdication and had been a British 1547 citizen, I should have taken great exception to the fact that the rest of the world knew what was happening with the monarch while we in Britain did not know. That was the media of those days.
In his interesting contribution the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, said that he was surprised that there was no one here from the proprietors. I agree with him. It took me back to the old days when I knew the noble Lord—if he will forgive me—as Hugh Lawson, when he was on one side of the table as the employer and I was on the other as the trade unionist. With due respect to the noble Lord, in the debate we will get on with it, and I am sure that the outcome will be a good one.
We must acknowledge that the media do a good job. They do a good job more often than they do a bad job. The problem is that when they do a bad job they are extremely destructive. I accept—as a member of the Press Complaints Commission I am only too well aware of this—that often the press goes over the top, so to speak, with its reporting. Only 8 per cent. of the over 2,000 complaints that the PCC receives each year are about invasions of privacy.
What must also be worrying is that some people say that they do not complain because they are afraid that due to complaining they will be further harassed and will become even greater victims. None of us can condone that. I, like many others in the Chamber, have been a victim of media harassment and media misreporting. It is hurtful, but it is not sufficient reason to have statutory regulation of the press. It seems that when the dogs are in full cry anything goes—editors and press lords excepted of course, because they are in their own magic circle, unlike the rest of us.
It is wrong but it still happens that facts and comment are mixed up by the media. It is wrong but it still happens that what is in the public interest is too often mixed with what is of public interest. There I agree with the statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, the chairman of the PCC—I know that he regrets that he cannot be here today—and the seven questions that he has put to the press for editors when they are dealing with issues which all too often they say are in the public interest.
Perhaps we should make this an annual event, because on 20th December last year there was a debate on cheque book journalism. One of the points made in that debate was that if witnesses are paid, court cases may be affected, and that the prosecution and the defence should know about it. That point is now part of the code of practice for any journalist in Britain who works under that code.
I believe that a democratic society needs a highly competitive press, warts and all, free of party or government domination, which uncovers those things which many people may be more comfortable not reading. Yet in recent times the worlds of the City, politics, local government, the police, and royalty and, yes, the Church, have had an uncomfortable spotlight put upon them. In most cases our indignant response has been that the media have gone too far. However, on further probing we found that the great merchant bank 1548 of Barings had been managed appallingly, to the loss of many ordinary people; we found that a Member of another place had managed to persuade that place and this place to amend a 300 year-old Act of Parliament to bring a libel action. Then he did not proceed because the Guardian had the guts to stand its ground. We then found that a Government Whip had lied—sorry, dissembled—to his colleagues in another place. We found that royalty had been briefing the media against one another, and, yes, there was to be a divorce, so the tabloids were, regretfully, right. We even found that inside that splendid cathedral at Lincoln, peace and harmony were not the rule. Against that background, it is important that we have a free but responsible press.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, referred to Belgium. Would we in this country have had the situation they had in Belgium? Would not a paedophile ring and the murder of young children have been exposed sooner in this country? I believe that they would. Those press reports on the children's homes, which have rightly caused a great deal of discomfort, have been pursued by the media. We need to have a free media who are not necessarily covered by statutory regulation.
Many noble Lords have, rightly, covered broadcasting. It is an area of which I feel we can be proud. Yes, there are lapses, but the lapses are far fewer than the occasions on which the broadcasters get it right. I greatly regret that the Government refused to accept the amendments from this side of the Chamber to give the ITC the right to establish a quality threshold when granting licences. I believe that we shall live to regret that.
I welcome the two major BBC initiatives—the statement of promises to viewers and listeners (over 200 of them) and the new producers' guidelines. That does not mean that I welcome everything that the broadcast media do. But it does mean that we have a balance. It is the checks and balances which are important in any democracy.
There has been a long established tradition in Britain of high standards because of the regulation that we have. There needs to be continuing and improving regulation. As the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has said, it must improve because the alternative for the press is a compensation scheme, fines and the judiciary interfering with the press. None of us in this Chamber wants that.
I conclude with one point. A fair, balanced, impartial media are never more important than at the time of a general election. We are coming up to that soon—sooner than later, I hope. The media in Britain will be on trial, whether they are the press or the broadcast media. They have the responsibility to match the very best of standards and to ensure that they report fact and not fact mixed with comment, that they report the facts as they are and deal with the whole issue impartially. I finish by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, for this debate.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood)
My Lords, I must begin my remarks by echoing the 1549 concluding remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, and thanking the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, who has triggered a wide-ranging and stimulating debate which I am sure will reverberate beyond the walls of this Chamber. Before responding to the comments that he and other noble Lords have made—I cannot respond verbally to everything that has been said but I shall write to those whose comments I do not touch upon! should like to underscore the remarks made by a number of your Lordships about our maiden speakers. First, my noble friend Lord Saatchi, the distinguished founder of the well-known advertising agency and patron of the arts, enjoined us all to keep it simple and did so himself. My noble friend Lord Chadlington pointed out the implications of the technological changes which are taking place and gave us the benefit of his experience, distinguished career and first-hand knowledge. My noble friend Lord Wrottesley showed us that there is no such thing as an amateur member of the public. We look forward to hearing more from each and all of them in the future.
§ Lord Inglewood
My Lords, although they do not have a distinct collective legal personality, the press, as they were known before the advent of broadcasting, or the media, as they are now called, have a central role in the healthy functioning of a modern, western society, whose essential characteristics are freedom under the law, democracy, accountability, and transparency. The Fourth Estate is an integral element of such a society, lubricating the proper relationships between the citizen and the legislature, executive and judiciary. Indeed without it, these four could not interact properly.
It is, of course, the characteristic, par excellence, of the British constitution that there is a sensitive interrelationship between its essential components, maintained by a carefully crafted web of checks and balances. And of course these checks and balances—both statutory and administrative—apply in respect of the media and always have done. Since the earliest days it has been recognised that the press and broadcasters are different from the rest of the commercial world of which they are part. Not merely can the media be used as an instrument of political power or influence either by those within or without the formal political process, it is also in a democratic society an essential tool to provide information be it factual, opinion, or investigative, without which democracy itself breaks down. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Ashburton, and reinforced by the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, it needs to be identifiably distinct.
But if the media behave in a manner so they damage rather than contribute to the healthy working of our constitution and society then the rest of the system is entitled, indeed not merely entitled but compelled, to act to restore the balance.
It is also characteristic of a free society that even within these areas where under the general law there, is no general constraint on the exercise of freedom, 1550 that freedom must not be exercised in a way which unjustifiably hurts others. And this, of course, is as true for the media as for everyone else.
The media are indeed a remarkable sector because they have a unique place and status in contemporary Britain underscored by our accession to the European Convention on Human Rights. Their status accords the press and broadcasters great privileges, power and influence and in turn is dependent upon the exercise of great responsibility. As Kipling put it:The Pope may launch his Interdict,The Union its decree,But the bubble is blown and the bubble is prickedby Us and such as We.Remember the battle and stand asideWhile Thrones and Powers confessThat King over all the children of prideis the Press-the Press-the Press!".We must not overlook one important distinction between the printed and broadcast forms of the media. Technologically, these distinctions will soon blur, but for now they are still clear and are reflected in the framework in which they operate. The print media have always, and rightly, valued their freedom to editorialise—to take a view on the issues of the day and to promote that view. The broadcast media, on the other hand, are required by statute to be impartial. Some noble Lords have questioned their performance in that regard but the obligation placed on them in this respect is unambiguous.
The reason for this is that broadcasters have a particular power to influence our opinions; their message comes into all our homes in a way in which print never did. For that reason, they are subject to a layer of regulation beyond the usual protection afforded the public by our general laws on libel, defamation, obscenity, confidence, fair trade and so forth. Programme makers are under an obligation to meet a series of programming requirements—for example, to be accurate and impartial and to "do no harm"—while the free-to-air public service broadcasters, which are the heart of our system and are part of the information infrastructure of contemporary society, are subject to even more rigorous positive programming requirements.
Undoubtedly, despite some of the problems we experience from time to time, the UK enjoys across the whole media a range and quality of information, entertainment and opinion admired all over the world.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, has drawn attention to the contrast between the ideal and the actual role of the journalist in our society. Certainly, I agree with John Birt, quoted by the noble Lord, that:journalism is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end … we need to assert that journalism's highest purpose is to inform the citizenry.Like the noble Lord, my noble friend Lady Park and others, I too find some examples of journalism—in its techniques too often cocksure and hectoring and in its content too often underinformed and researched—pretty depressing and degrading. There can be no doubt that too often journalism fails to achieve John Birt's aspiration, but as my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham said in his book On the Constitution: 1551It is not a pretty picture … Perhaps bad taste is the price we pay for freedom. If so, it may be worth paying. But it is, by any standards, a price which is disagreeably high".In this country the press has not been subject to executive control in peacetime for three centuries. The print media enjoy freedom of expression, which means the freedom to cover or not to cover any aspect of life. They are subject to the general law in the same way as any other citizen. On top of this there is a voluntary code of practice which has been agreed by the newspaper industry and is interpreted by the Press Complaints Commission. It is an integral, albeit a self-regulating element of the framework society has set for the press, which regulates the means by which journalists obtain stories which they choose to follow, while simultaneously calling for high journalistic and professional standards, inherent in the behaviour demanded by the code of conduct.
My noble friend Lord Vivian raised the issue of the reporting of military activity and the possible consequences of so doing. I shall pass on his request to my noble friend Lord Howe in order to ensure that he receives the reply he seeks.
The responsibilities of the press as a whole are exercised via the actions and activities of proprietors, editors and journalists. They are responsible both jointly and severally for whether the press actually plays its proper part in society, as I have already mentioned. Certainly there is a wide divergence in the quality of its performance which cannot merely be explained away by subjective differences of taste.
As I have already mentioned, broadcasters are subject to much tighter rules than the press in respect of news reporting and impartiality. The BBC's responsibilities for impartiality and accuracy are now at the heart of its new Charter and Agreement, which noble Lords debated earlier this year. The revised Producer's Guidelines reflect this, and the Statement of Promises makes clear the corporation's commitment to its viewers. All commercial broadcasters—terrestrial, satellite and cable—have similar conditions written into their licences.
There are well-established rights of complaint and redress, whether through the BBC governors, the Independent Television Commission or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. I believe that we have a well balanced structure in place, enabling this powerful medium to be properly regulated independent of government in the wider public interest with due respect for journalistic, editorial and artistic freedom.
I turn now to the treatment of violence. As my noble friend Lord Renton pointed out, this is an issue of particular concern to the Heritage Secretary and she has recently agreed an initiative with the BBC, ITC and BSC to give the public a more informed choice about what they view and assistance to parents in exercising proper parental control over their children's viewing. She will also, I know, be paying close attention to research which is being conducted on a number of fronts into television violence, its effects and the options for protecting vulnerable viewers.
1552 We must rationally examine the nature and extent of the problem, which is by no means clear at present. For example, the increase in general concern about violence coincides with a measured fall in the amount of violence actually shown on terrestrial television. We must look at the kinds of violence portrayed, the context in which it is shown and the different ends to which it is portrayed. For example, how should one compare the "Duchess of Malfi" or "Titus Andronicus" with the Bruno v. Tyson fight or "Cracker"? At the same time we must also look at public opinion: at how many and what sort of people view television violence; at how critically and in what context they view; at their reactions; at whether people complain about what they actually see themselves or merely about what they have read is to be shown. It is interesting, for example, that the European Commission in its recently published Green Paper on the protection of minors and human dignity in audiovisual services specifically comments:There is a wide gap between the Nordic countries which are tough on violent material, but easy going where sexually explicit material is concerned, and the Latin countries which are tough on sex but less so on violence".Only when we examine the evidence fully, and analyse it properly, should we consider taking fundamental decisions of principle. It may be that there is a need for some other safeguard, whether technological like the V-chip, on which we have recently published a paper, or by some other means. I simply ask that we sift the evidence and give thought to the best way to proceed.
The noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, referred to perverted forms of sex and obscene and offensive language on television. Although that topic was not mentioned specifically by many noble Lords, the principles underlying the noble Lord's concern about that issue were not far under the surface. I know that his concerns are shared by many viewers.
While violence is the issue named by viewers generally as that which causes most concern, it is on matters of taste and decency that most complaints to broadcasters are received. Self-evidently it is not possible for every programme fully to accommodate every viewers' personal preferences, but again there are guidance codes for broadcasters on the standards to be observed and these are enforced by the regulators. The regulator acted, for example, against "Brookside" for its portrayal of an incestuous relationship—not because this issue should not be dealt with, but because it was not handled responsibly. In particular, "family viewing" provisions are intended to ensure that programmes likely to be seen by children are acceptable, and I know that the regulators intend shortly to publicise and explain this policy.
That is clearly an area in which better advance information would allow viewers to avoid programmes which are likely to offend them, and to protect children from viewing unsuitable material, although one has to be aware, as my teenage nephew and niece reminded me recently, that the identification of unsuitability may be one of the greatest attractions to viewing and that on the whole they are more adept 1553 at unlocking the electronic key than their parents. Nevertheless, I look forward to seeing proposals for providing such information in the coming year.
I have already mentioned that the place of self-regulation in the framework of the arrangements within which the media function, and perhaps one of the most obvious areas where that applies, is in the area of privacy, a topic which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Vivian and the noble Lord, Lord Annan, in his sparkling and Olympian intervention. He expressed a different point of view from that expressed by my noble friend Lord Cromer.
We considered that in great detail over a considerable time and concluded, in July 1995, that a statutory commission or tribunal would be a disproportionate response to such abuses as had occurred; secondly, that intrusion offences, though right in principle, would be impossible to frame in a way that caught the mischief while allowing responsible investigative journalism to flourish; and, thirdly, that there was insufficient public consensus for a privacy tort. My noble friend Lord Vivian asked what evidence we had for that. That view was formed on the basis of the responses received to the consultation document of the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland.
We welcomed improvements to self-regulation which had been agreed by the newspaper industry and the Press Complaints Commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Wakeham. At the same time, we seek further improvements in the performance of the press. It is undeniably a difficult area, compounded by the problems of those who court publicity in one area of their lives only to complain about its unwelcome consequences in another.
I do not deny that abuses still occur. Nonetheless, we believe potentially the best, but not necessarily the only, way of securing proper behaviour in this area is through a self-regulatory system which works. After all the capacity to run a successful newspaper must imply the ability to adhere to the code of practice.
The passing of the new Broadcasting Act earlier this year was a most significant development for the broadcast media. It is especially pleasing that many in the industry tell me without my asking that they are very glad that it began in this House, because they believe the debate here set a high standard and treated these issues in a matter and with the seriousness they properly merited. The changes the Act has made to our system of media ownership regulation were perhaps one of its most important aspects in the context of today's debate.
The balance we believe we have struck as regards media ownership is between the need to liberalise ownership regulations to meet the business requirements of a rapidly developing industry and the need to provide safeguards to maintain pluralism and diversity of voice on the other. I believe that we achieved that balance. It is interesting that a number of new alliances are being formed by various media firms.
1554 The noble Lord, Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Dean, expressed a concern which has been expressed by a number of your Lordships on a number of occasions about the threat to the plurality and diversity of the new digital services made possible by the Broadcasting Act 1996 from one corporate entity, controlled by Mr. Rupert Murdoch, controlling the key technology for access to the encryption and delivery of services. As your Lordships' House is aware, the Minister for Science and Technology tabled regulations yesterday to implement the EC Advanced Television Standards Directive which will prevent any holder of the proprietary technology from acting as a monopoly gatekeeper to the digital age. Those regulations represent a fair balance between the return on investment for a first mover in digital conditional access technology and the wider interests of fair and effective competition in the digital broadcasting medium. The detail involved is extremely complicated and there will be an opportunity for your Lordships to have a full debate on the regulations in the new year.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to the BBC's licence fee. He may be interested to know that in another place this afternoon my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage made an announcement about the level of the TV licence fee. The annual licence fees from next April will be linked directly to the movement in the RPI and will be £91.50 for a colour licence, a £2 increase, and £30.50 for a black-and-white licence, which is a 50p increase.
The Government have decided also that cumulative changes in the licence fee for the five years commencing 1st April 1997 should continue to equate broadly with the RPI. However, the pattern of annual changes will not be uniform. Throughout the period the BBC needs to fund expenditure on new digital services. That will be offset in 1997-98 by receipts from the sale of the BBC's transmission system and in later years by increased efficiency savings and commercial income. Therefore, in 1998-99 there will be a real increase in the licence fees but in the years 2000 and 2001 there will be a real decrease. The five-year settlement will enable the BBC to pursue its plans for digital broadcasting and enhance its programme services.
We are living in revolutionary times for the media. The traditional distinction between newspapers and the broadcasters is breaking down thanks to new technology, and there is more to come shortly as my noble friend Lord Chadlington pointed out. Nevertheless, the importance of the media to our society and to our constitutional arrangements to which I referred in my opening remarks is unaffected.
What must we do? First we must recognise that further changes will occur. Secondly, we must not waste time and effort regretting them; they are I believe inevitable. We have in place a system of checks and balances, a combination of legislation and self-regulation which together provide a proper framework for this unique part of our constitutional and administrative arrangements, so important to the health of our government and public life. For this special 1555 framework to survive, both regulators and the regulated must exercise responsibility in the public interest on behalf of society as a whole.
As the revolution gathers momentum it is inevitable the mechanics necessary to achieve this balance will alter, while the fundamental principles underlying them will not. To get it right depends on us, the politicians, and the media thinking carefully, behaving responsibly, and acting decisively and with probity and wisdom, otherwise we shall find we are living in a world described by W.B. Yeats when:A Statesman is an easy manHe tells his lies by roteA journalist makes up his liesand takes you by the throatSo stay at home and drink your beerand let the neighbours vote".The British people and our great country will be the losers if that were to happen.
§ 6.10 p.m.
§ Lord Chalfont
My Lords, it remains only for me to thank all speakers who took part in today's most interesting debate. I should also like to express my admiration for the way that all speakers, without exception, compressed interesting and stimulating ideas into the very limited time at their disposal. I congratulate them all in that respect. I must also thank the Minister for his characteristically thoughtful and courteous reply to the debate; indeed, it is a style and content that we have come to expect from him. I warmly thank him for his contribution.
It is worth saying that there were 16 speakers in today's debate, other than the three outstanding maiden speakers. I believe that there was a consensus, to put it in the form of words used by one of my noble friends, that it was the best clutch of maiden speeches that any of us can remember in this House. Finally, I should like to make one further point. From those 16 speakers there was, almost without exception, some degree of unease and criticism about the performance of the media. There was also a widespread view that regulation needs strengthening. Of course, not everyone agreed with that but most speakers seemed to have that thought in the back of their minds.
In that context, I hope that everyone will think very hard about the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Pilkington, for some kind of overarching regulatory body which might be able to use its teeth in a way that some of the regulators seem reluctant to do at present. It has been suggested that this is largely a question of regulation, while others have said that it is a matter of self-regulation. I believe that it is probably a matter of a word which was not mentioned in today's debate—namely, leadership. If there were some leaders in the press with the highest of standards, I believe that we would perhaps go a long way towards solving the problem. However, that is not a matter for today. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.