HL Deb 14 January 1998 vol 584 cc1057-78

3.9 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden rose to call attention to the case for instituting a statutory means by which complaints against abuses by the press can be resolved, possibly through an independent ombudsman service; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This is not a further contribution to the debate about whether there should be a privacy law. It is about power and the misuse of that unrestricted power.

I share the widespread feeling that in recent years the amount of press intrusion into private lives has reached an unacceptable level. I am sure that I am not alone in feeling disgust at the use of bugged, intimate telephone conversations to hold up individuals to scorn and ridicule. I refer particularly to the use made of the so called "Squidgy" and "Camillagate" tapes affecting members of the Royal Family. It is revolting, but it is believed to sell newspapers.

Since the tragic death of Princess Diana, there has been some indication of an intention not to misbehave, and in that connection I commend the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who I am pleased to see is participating in the debate, in introducing a new and tougher press code. The problem is that these admirable provisions are likely to count for little once a sensational story has been sensed. My Motion was drafted and published before the Christmas Recess. I really do wonder what the press has learnt. Would the press have bothered to entrap a young teenager in an alleged cannabis deal had his father not been a prominent politician? I believe that there was an entrapment, otherwise why were tapes used? We have to remember that the 1993 Act was introduced to protect children and young people. It is surely part of the code that the law should be upheld. If that protection does not exist when the parent or guardian is well known, because there is then a "public interest" justification, one has to ask what the code or Act are worth.

It is of course fashionable in some quarters to blame the decline in press standards on the tabloids, but in many ways "respectable" broadsheets are just as culpable; perhaps more so, because of the "holier than thou" attitude some of them adopt. Some of them, in what they claim to be investigative journalism, adopt tactics which certainly appear to breach the code and in some respects resemble those of a private KGB. There is the "demonisation" of individuals who are targeted, reliance on informers—sometimes paid, sometimes simply activated by malice—attempted entrapment, sometimes including "honey traps", surveillance, bugging, people are followed and harassed and neighbours are encouraged to gossip. And all in pursuit of "stories", the more scandalous the better.

All those tactics have been used against individuals in recent years, the excuse being that it is in the public interest. Some journalists are honest enough to admit that there are problems for individuals. In a recent article which appeared after the death of Princess Diana, when many in the media were feeling unusually contrite, a journalist writing in the Independent stated: The libel laws in the country are stringent, thorough and powerful…but for all practical purposes they arc not available to royals or commoners. Princesses do not stoop to sue for libel—commoners cannot afford to do so".

The article then outlines the type of costs a plaintiff is likely to be on risk for; perhaps as much as £500,000 in a defended case, which could continue for some time. The article goes on: Faced with these figures, which spell ruin, most ordinary people who are mistreated, misrepresented and mangled in the papers realise that they are powerless to get recompense and they creep away…Newspaper proprietors, editors, journalists and their house lawyers understand the reality of that in their bones…It is an unwritten law of much newspaper life that you can say anything you like about a person who has no money—what are they going to do about it?—but you must check every word and dilute every criticism you print about such men as Robert Maxwell, Sir James Goldsmith and Mohammed Al Fayed".

Of course, that is clearly true. Nothing was printed to the discredit of Robert Maxwell until he was dead. And as for Mohammed Al Fayed, one cannot help but contrast the press treatment of him—at least until recently—with the demonisation of the parliamentarians he is alleged to have bribed. If they were guilty, so was he, but you would not have thought so from the press reports.

It so happens that I have some knowledge of and therefore an interest in this latter affair, which became known as "Cash for Questions". I believe that it was largely a media stunt, but it had a devastating effect upon a number of people innocently caught up in it. I was, as many Members of your Lordships' House will know, a non-executive director of the lobbying and public relations firm, Ian Greer Associates, between 1991 and 1996. That was the firm at the centre of the affair. At the time I joined the board, IGA had a good reputation and a prestigious client list. Of course, my interest was properly declared. The company had members of all political parties and of none among its directors and staff.

However, in 1994 a campaign initiated by the Guardian newspaper began. It included an attempted entrapment operation and culminated in the allegation, printed on 20th October 1994, that IGA paid two named Members of the other place £2,000 a time to ask Questions in a campaign on behalf of Mr. Al Fayed. The details are well known, I believe. Proceedings for libel were commenced and then, I think unwisely, discontinued for a complex series of reasons, but certainly not because there was truth in the allegations. It was a mistake to commence proceedings and then discontinue because this gave rise to a veritable media frenzy.

It was that media frenzy in which I was caught up. It occurred during the conference of my party in 1996 when the media decided to concentrate upon me. I denied that I had been a party to any decision to bribe MPs and called for an independent inquiry. Even if there had been substance in the allegations—which there was not—they all related to a time a number of years before I became a director.

It was clear, however, that the media frenzy was an embarrassment to my party and I was therefore not surprised when I was asked to stand down from the Front Bench, which I accordingly did. The party issued a statement to the effect that I had done absolutely nothing wrong in my capacity as an IGA director, but that was not good enough for the press. What was wanted was a scandalous story and they therefore proceeded to hound me. As I left the train at Euston, I was almost knocked down by a mob of journalists and they were also laying seige to the offices of IGA where I took refuge because I did not want to go home.

The press frenzy lasted a few days. The stories were awful. I was everywhere described as "disgraced". The party's statement on my behalf was totally disregarded. Headlines screamed, "Disgraced Baroness slinks out of Blackpool under cover of darkness", as though I 'had been detected in doing something fraudulent. I went off to stay with relatives in the country to get out of the way. I was advised to say nothing; not to give interviews or to respond because that would simply prolong the story.

Friends and relatives were supportive, but some of the mud sticks: "There's no smoke without fire". People may not remember just what you are supposed to have done; simply that you have been involved in something unsavoury for which you had some responsibility. And of course it was all untrue.

We then had the inquiry under Sir Gordon Downey. He had no alternative, in the light of the documentary evidence, but to conclude that the two named Members of the other place did not receive cash from Mr. Al Fayed indirectly through IGA. So, no cash for Questions, but by that time the company had been hounded out of existence, Ian Greer had been ruined and all the staff lost their jobs. Was it in the public interest? I do not think so. It was in pursuit of a sensational story—and it did not matter what happened to the people caught up in it.

The firm was a legitimate one and had done absolutely nothing wrong and certainly nothing fraudulent. Much of the material published about it was preposterously untrue, but the "killer" allegation was "Cash for Questions" and that was shown to be false, but too late.

It was fortunate for me that I was at the end of my career rather than at the beginning. I am sure that otherwise I would have had difficulty in sustaining employment. And of course it is the modern version of the medieval stocks when alleged miscreants were put in the stocks for the populace to throw rubbish at them. There are the usual anonymous letters, and I was subjected to a rather peculiar form of continuous anonymous harassment which caused me to make a report to the police.

Those are the unlooked-for side-effects of such publicity. I was perhaps more fortunate than the two young women recently wrongly identified in the AIDS scare. One of them is reported to have had her windows broken and rubbish put through her letterbox. As I say, being pilloried in the press is the modern equivalent of the medieval stocks.

I know that nothing can be done about my case and I refer to it simply because it is based on direct personal experience. I know that there are no doubt other Members of your Lordships' House who have had hatchet jobs performed on them. I now believe that it would be very much better if alleged bribery of parliamentarians was an offence involving prosecution. That would be a great deal more fair than trial by media.

I was reminded of that just before Christmas when the Sunday newspaper I normally take ran a poll of its readership to ascertain the man and woman of the year and also the villain of the year. In view of the bad press he has had, I was not surprised that the former MP for Tatton, Neil Hamilton, featured among the villains, but it really made me wonder whether a section of the British reading public had lost its marbles to see that he apparently out-distanced in villainy none other than Saddam Hussein! Saddam Hussein was simply a runner-up in the villainy stakes. Then I realised that that helped to make my case about the extraordinary power of the media to manipulate the way in which we perceive events and people.

It would not be appropriate for me to comment much further on the Hamilton affair as it has been a matter for the other place. But I am concerned about the role of the press and there is no doubt in my mind that Hamilton was tried and found guilty by the media long before there was any inquiry. Moreover, one newspaper produced a book during the course of the inquiry with the quite specific intention of influencing the result. That confirms my view that a judicial process would be much fairer for everyone concerned, a judicial process in which all witnesses—I emphasise all witnesses—could be subjected to examination under oath and rigorous cross-examination.

To my mind at least the issue remains unresolved. I believe that others take a similar view. I was recently approached by two young television journalists who have become interested in the case. They have been working on an extremely detailed and comprehensive account which casts doubt on much of the so-called evidence and particularly calls into question the role of the Guardian newspaper in the affair; and I have a copy of the report here. It demonstrates conclusively that there are still investigative journalists who have the courage, occasionally, to challenge received opinion. I do not believe that we have heard the last of the matter.

As I said at the commencement of my speech, this is a debate about power. I do not seek to interfere with the rights of the press and, as I have indicated, I am not against investigative journalism. It has a great deal to its credit in the past. But I am concerned to achieve some form of independent redress for individuals who feel that they have been unfairly treated and consequently damaged.

I should like also to make the point very strongly that one does not sacrifice one's human rights—the right to privacy and the right not to be traduced and lied about—simply because one has opted to play a role at whatever level in public life. That should not of itself give the press the right to say what it likes in the name of public interest. Nor, as I have already made clear, is recourse to libel action a real possibility for everyone, even for someone with a public role. In many areas of life—the provision of financial services is one example, and there are others—an independent ombudsman service exists to deal with complaints. I am aware that the Press Complaints Commission exists but the presence of representatives of the press on it does not necessarily give the impression to the public of total independence.

Moreover, it seems to me that it sees its role as one of conciliation and, most importantly, it does not have the power. as some ombudsman schemes have, to award compensation. The idea of an ombudsman with powers to compensate is not new. It arose from the Calcutt Commission which reported in 1993 when there was also concern about the abuses of press power. I do not believe that there has been much, if any, improvement; quite the reverse. It is time to revisit the recommendations of Calcutt. My Lords, I beg to move For Papers.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the whole House will he most grateful to the noble Baroness for raising this subject today. The noble Baroness has very strong views on the subject which I greatly respect. She speaks with conviction and knowledge from her experiences. I hope that she will understand why it would be somewhat difficult for me to comment in any detail on what she said in view of the position that I hold.

However, I believe that there are some grave dangers associated with the ideas which she has put before your Lordships this afternoon, although they are perhaps not quite as serious as some of the dangers in relation to the proposals contained in the Human Rights Bill which is currently before the House.

There is already a body which is independent of the press and which seeks to resolve complaints; that is, the Press Complaints Commission of which I have been the independent chairman for three years. It does not rely on any statutory basis because in my view that would make it inaccessible for ordinary people. Statutory systems are legal systems and legal systems cannot produce redress without cost to ordinary people.

Cost is the crucial factor. Cost limits access, and it is easy access for ordinary people which is the greatest advantage of a voluntary system. But there are many more advantages of a voluntary system over a statutory one. To begin with, a voluntary body is not a regulatory body in the true sense of that word. Its main aim is not to punish offenders but to conciliate amicably and quickly disputes between a newspaper and an aggrieved individual. That is what is wanted by most people who complain and that simply would not happen under a legal system.

Of course, some disputes cannot be conciliated and in those circumstances there must be an adjudication. But that happens in only a handful of cases which come before the PCC each year. Most complaints can be and are resolved. Indeed, last year more were resolved than ever. Of those where there was a complaint to answer, nearly nine in 10 were resolved directly to the satisfaction of the person complaining. That is a very important and significant point.

I shall give your Lordships some further advantages of a voluntary system. In particular. it has produced a tough and effective code of practice which is framed for editors by editors and is supported by the entire newspaper industry. Again, that is an important point because it means that no editor will lightly ignore the code. That code seeks to raise standards in a number of areas—not just privacy and accuracy—and to give special protection to particularly vulnerable groups of people. Those include children, where there are very tough provisions, people being treated in hospitals, innocent friends of convicted criminals, those suffering at a time of grief or shock, victims of sexual assault, children in sex cases and intrusion into the privacy of the children of those in the public eye.

As I have already pointed out about the recent coverage of the son of the Home Secretary, the new code's rules in relation to the children of public figures worked fairly well until the law intervened. That made it impossible for self-regulation and the code to work. Obviously I must not comment on the substance of the case, but it was known widely that the identity of the boy was freely available up and down the country on the Internet. It was available also in many foreign publications. And so, not surprisingly, a judge very quickly allowed newspapers to join in. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Browne-Wilkinson, said at the time of the Spycatcher case in 1987: In the contemporary world of electronics and jumbo jets, news anywhere is news everywhere". That is even more so today, 10 years on, and underlines to me the importance of voluntary self-restraint in these matters.

The simple position is that a statutory system will not be able to protect people but it is possible—and I say possible—that a self-regulatory system might. In that recent case, the newspapers did just that until the law intervened.

The voluntary code also contains rules on the ways in which news is gathered including harassment, witness payments, long-lens photography and subterfuge. There is more to a system based on co-operation than just the code. For example, it was a voluntary agreement which produced guidelines when the National Lottery was introduced in relation to the identification of winners wishing to remain anonymous, and because the guidelines were voluntary they have not been breached. It was self-regulation which, when Prince William started school at Eton, was able to give him the same protection at school as any other child in the land. Again, it is an arrangement which has worked extremely well and no unauthorised photographs of him have, to my knowledge, appeared in the British press.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether it is true that in order to have a complaint considered seriously by the Press Complaints Commission it has to be submitted under a clause in the code which, of course, is not available to a vast number of the population?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, at the Press Complaints Commission we are required to operate under a code. Indeed, that is the only way that I believe we can seriously operate. We are only able to deal with those matters included in the code. However, that is usually not a constraint that affects people. I know that the noble Earl follows such matters very closely. I believe that he may be concerned in cases where a complaint may be made many months after the event occurred. In such cases, the commission does consider the explanation as to why the complaint was made so long after the event. In cases where the commission is satisfied that it is reasonable, it will waive the rule which states that a complaint must normally be made within one month of the publication of the offending piece of journalism. That is the procedure in such a case: and, indeed, we have adopted it on many occasions.

The voluntary agreement has also established specific guidelines in a number of special areas, such as the reporting of patients suffering from mental illness and the reporting of court cases. Each of these helps to raise standards in the press, but has only been achieved because the commission works through the co-operation of all newspapers and magazines. It is that co-operation which allows us to deal effectively with cases of harassment. Where someone is at the centre of a news story and a media scrum forms, we can act to break it up by asking editors to remove their reporters in line with the code. That is what happened in a high profile way at Dunblane. It happened at Balmoral over the summer and it frequently works for ordinary people who suddenly find themselves at the centre of a media storm. No statutory system could do that, because the actions that I take in such cases would immediately compromise me if it were a statutory proceeding where I subsequently had to adjudicate.

All that would go if there were no code and no Press Complaints Commission, and losing it is not as far fetched as it might seem. In my view, the PCC and the code would not survive the imposition of statute, which might happen if the current Human Rights Bill is made law.

There is another point. Apart from practical reasons why a self-regulatory system is preferable to statute, there is also a sound philosophical reason. The freedom of the press has been a cornerstone of our democracy since 1689. A press subjected to a legal regime would no longer be a free press, but one subject to control of courts and government. I profoundly do not want that to happen—nor. I believe, does any democrat.

But the press can be free and responsible without the need for statute through effective self-regulation based on a tough code and the commitment of all newspapers. That is what we are seeking to achieve now. It is certainly not perfect—and there is more to do—but it does work. It works to resolve disputes: nearly nine in 10 of those where there is a case to answer. It works to raise standards through its adjudications and guidelines on special issues. It works for the benefit of ordinary people, thousands of whom use our service every year without cost to them. It also works in a whole range of areas to give special protection to the vulnerable. Statute could never replace that, and its future is in real danger.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I have one point to raise with him. He has not told us what his objection is to an independent ombudsman service to which everyone could appeal whether rich or poor and which would have nothing to do with the covenant which we are now discussing. Can he enlighten us in that respect?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am very happy to give the noble Lord an explanation on that point. If we set up a statutory ombudsman, his decisions are bound to be the subject of appeal to the courts. I can assure the noble Lord that, if they want to, newspapers will run any complaint through the courts of this land. As a result, many ordinary people will not risk the chances of that happening. If I may say so, it is perhaps not very easy for those in this House who are articulate, who are able to travel the world saying what they think and are listened to, to realise that many ordinary people believe that they may lose something like a quarter of a million pounds if they are taken to the High Court as the result of an appeal by a newspaper to a statutory decision by a statutory ombudsman, and so they simply will not complain. In my judgment, that is the danger that we would face with a statutory system. I do not believe that ordinary people in this country would find that acceptable.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, why cannot the newspapers have a self-denying ordinance on themselves; namely, that if an independent ombudsman reaches a conclusion they would be willing to accept it as any ordinary individual would be?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, where there is a procedure brought before Parliament and approved by it giving newspapers the right to pursue such matters in the courts, I do not believe that it is either sensible or reasonable that they should be asked voluntarily to give up such rights just because some people believe that that would be more convenient for everyone. If this House is going to give people the right to pursue such matters through the courts then, in the appropriate circumstances, I believe that they will wish to do so. I do not believe that they should be criticised in that respect. I want to create a system where that does not happen.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I hesitate to badger the noble Lord at this stage, but can he say whether the PCC procedure depends entirely on a complaint being made? If there is a blatant case—of which there have been many—of invasion of privacy and those involved are too ignorant or too frightened to complain, does the commission just sit and do nothing?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, that is the kind of issue that I had to face when I first took up the position. In my view, if an individual does not wish to complain there is a limited amount of investigation that one can, or should, undertake against his wishes in exposing the intrusion into his privacy. Therefore, where appropriate, we certainly talk to such people and invite them to complain. Indeed, I have made a whole range of public speeches encouraging people to exercise their right to complain.

However, I initially took the view that the situation was not satisfactory. Therefore, I pointed out to members of the commission—and they agreed—that there were certain issues of public concern which should be investigated which did not necessarily involve an individual who must have a right as to whether or not he or she wished to pursue the matter through the courts. I can give your Lordships examples galore of people who publicly say, "I want to complain". However, I have then talked privately to the newspapers and I know perfectly well that they have made their public statements but that they have no intention of complaining, for very good reasons. So it is not always the fault of the newspapers.

Before I sit down I should point out to the House that I did make a change in the rules in relation to matters of public interest; for example, as regards the National Lottery. The case of the gentleman who won the lottery the first time and went off to India with his £18 million, seemed to me to be an absurd position. In that instance I was not able to give any adjudication as to whether or not the newspapers would be right to publish his name.

I took the view that I should. Therefore, in certain limited cases, we do investigate matters which are not the subject of an individual complaint.

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, as a former chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission, perhaps I may just raise a tiny matter of fact which relates to the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. That commission was a statutory body. We were subject to the courts. However, at no point were we taken to the courts with the plaintiff having to bear the costs; it was taken to judicial review and the commission bore the costs. As regards a statutory body—and I served on one for five years—I should point out that there is no danger of a plaintiff facing costs in the order of a quarter of a million pounds; indeed, in my experience it never happened.

3.40 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, at long last I submit myself to the House. It is pleasant to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. She is one of the most respected Members of the House and one of the best speakers, if I am allowed to say so. Naturally, I feel tremendous sympathy with what she has been saying. She has been treated wickedly; so, incidentally, has Mr. Neil Hamilton whom I have recently come to know and like. However, that is not my immediate issue, and it is not the immediate issue today. Any sufferings I have had at the hands of the press in the past or recently, which I shall describe, are trivial compared with what the noble Baroness has been through.

It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who is struggling to do the best he can with a hopeless case. Our enormous sympathy must go out to him. I have special sympathy for him because I read in the newspapers today that he has resigned on honourable grounds from some different body. If I may say so—I hope he does not mind—he joins a small club of those who have resigned from important positions. He may not like them all; some have resigned in rather unfavourable circumstances. When I resigned from the Cabinet, someone said, "Oh, they have shot our fox." However, I do not say that is the reason in this case with the noble Lord. I feel a great deal of sympathy for him.

When I was young I entertained journalistic ambitions. I did not last long in the world of what the late Lord Beaverbrook called the black art. I was an assistant leader writer in the 30s on the Daily Mail. I was greeted by the main leader writer, who was not anxious for me to succeed, with the words, "You must know the policy of this paper. We regard the Germans as the cruellest people in the world except the Chinese and of course the Irish", looking at me. That was my reception at the Daily Mail. I did not survive long there. I did not last much longer on the Spectator. The editor again was not keen for me to succeed for various reasons. He greeted me with the words, "Oh, we have a nice little job for you. You were at Eton, were you not? There is a story here about drunkenness at Eton. We want you to go down and investigate." I did my best but my revered headmaster greeted me with the words, "If you are being employed to blackguard your old school, that is where you and I part company." The Spectator and I soon parted company. I am not presenting myself as one who has succeeded in journalism. More recently I am bound to boast of the fact that the late Lord Beaverbrook asked me to be a leader writer on the Evening Standard. But by that time I was an Oxford don and I knew a secure job when I saw it. Therefore I did not proceed with journalism.

However, I have had enormous pleasure—as have most of us—from reading the newspapers over the years. In that sense I am a friend of theirs. However, I have come to the conclusion that something along the lines of that mentioned by the noble Baroness must be adopted. The papers are unkind about politicians, but certainly in any house of parliament we are unkind—and rightly severe at the moment—about them. Speaking generally, there is no doubt that in the eyes of most people the standard of journalism—for whatever reason—has gone down. Yet I continue to read the papers. I read the Sun every day. I do not know how many other Members of the House of Lords read it every day. I have not seen any doing so, but still. Therefore I was quick to notice a short leading article about me headed "Wrongford". That is a pretty feeble pun on my name. The article stated that I had been talking rot about Myra Hindley for 20 years. At any rate that was the gist of the article. I am not saying that it is alone in expressing that view, but that is what appeared in the Sun. I should have thought most of us would agree that one is entitled to reply to a leading article in which one is named and concentrated upon. The Sun allowed a right of reply to one of the most esteemed Members of this House, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, who had been described as one of the dirty dozen. I think most people would say that in principle if a leading article in a national paper is devoted to a person, that person is entitled to a right of reply. One may say that it should not be an absolute right because in the last resort the editor is entitled to say that the reply is unsuitable. Nevertheless the editor should give a reasoned reply as to why he cannot publish a letter.

An article appeared in the Sun one Saturday and I rang up on the Sunday. A very helpful secretary spoke to me. She was kind enough to take down over the telephone my fairly short reply. Two days later, after several attempts, I contacted the editor. I was greeted with the words, "We are not going to have you abusing our staff." I wondered what that was all about as I had had nothing but courtesy from the lady on the telephone and I could not think that I had been rude to her. I thought afterwards that perhaps something in my letter had upset him. I had said that to my certain knowledge the leader writer was a good Christian person like Myra Hindley. That may have got under his skin a little. However, if one dishes it out, one has to take it, as they say. I wrote in my letter that I would have assumed he would pay attention to the testimony of the Reverend Peter Timms, a former governor of Maidstone, and then a Methodist clergyman for many years, who had spoken up for her character more than once, and also to the testimonies of a whole series of Catholic priests, including one who had ministered to her for four years at Cookham Wood. In the letter I said I assumed that he would pay attention to those testimonies.

As the conversation went on, the editor became more and more angry. He said, "I shall not print a single word you ever write." Other people have refused to print words that I have written but they have not said that they would never do so. The editor finished with the words, "You are a pompous idiot, OK?" My reply is unsuitable for your Lordships' delicate ears as it was quite blunt. That is my experience of trying to reply to a leading article about myself in a national newspaper.

Noble Lords may wonder why I do not approach the Press Complaints Commission. The noble Lord. Lord Wakeham, will know what I am going to say now; namely, that I have had an unhappy experience of that body. That is not because of any lack of kindness on the part of the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, who has done his best to help me. However, there are great difficulties for those in a weak position. A prisoner whom I have visited regularly for a long time was grossly libelled in the News of the World. That was not due to any dishonesty on the part of the editor whom I know to he an honest man. However, he had been grossly misinformed by some journalist who has since left the paper and, I believe, is suffering some kind of breakdown. It was a total libel.

I took the matter up but it took some time to reach the Press Complaints Commission. I must be careful here as I do not wish to incriminate the noble Lord. Lord Wakeham, by suggesting that he was too friendly to me as that might be unhelpful to him. He was anxious to help but the complaint was judged to be out of time. I went to great trouble to build up the case. I was dealing with a man in custody who is not that easy to get hold of. The complaint was ruled out of time as it had not been put before the commission within a month. Therefore I do not have much confidence in the Press Complaints Commission. However, I believe that I am just about within the month and I shall send the commission a copy of Hansard tomorrow as something that I hope will be accepted as an official complaint. I shall be pleasantly surprised, however, if that is enough. One needs something stronger and firmer. I am entirely on the side of the noble Baroness in calling for firmer action to bring the worst features of the press under control.

3.49 p.m.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, the whole House will be exceedingly grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, for introducing this debate. I am sorry that there are not more speakers with experience of the press—of whom we have many in your Lordships' Chamber—who will join us in discussing this question.

It is of course conventional to thank the introducer of such a debate for what he or she has done. That may be the convention. It is particularly relevant as regards the noble Baroness. It is fairly rare, I believe, that the person introducing the debate has been so affected by the subject matter. We must all have the deepest sympathy with the noble Baroness for what she suffered from the press. She was not even accused of being guilty of some of the crimes alleged against Members of another place. But it must have been an extremely painful and difficult time for her.

A large number of Members of your Lordships' House may have suffered in a similar way from the press. On one occasion I was well and truly pilloried by Private Eye. I happened to be seeing the then Prime Minister, Sir Edward Heath, and was weeping on his shoulder. He just looked at me and said, "Once". I appreciate that many people in this House, another place and elsewhere have suffered on many occasions.

I would criticise very slightly the noble Baroness for restricting the debate to the press only. The television and other media are almost equally as guilty of intrusion and invasion of privacy as are newspapers. I speak as a journalist with 35 years on a newspaper. I come from a family which has had 142 years' service on a newspaper. It is true to say that while the newspapers have undoubtedly changed, and the emphasis of what they write has changed enormously, nevertheless there has always been concentration on scandal. In the 19th century there were many scandals which, in the terms of those days, were as hateful and opprobrious as those we see today. Certainly in the earlier part of this century, until the change of the divorce laws, many suffered deeply from reports in the newspapers.

Many innocent people are pilloried in the newspapers for their part in events where, even if they are accurately reported, the punishment does not fit the crime. In years gone by, I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary would have been blasted by dozens of newspaper pages of fact, fiction and comment about his marital and extra-marital affairs. I am sure the majority of your Lordships will sympathise with him for the way in which he has been treated, even if they do not sympathise with him for having got himself into that position in the first place.

The Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary may have problems but they do not deserve the way in which they have been treated. Numbers of more ordinary people have suffered the same, some of it deserved, much of it not. They are to be commiserated with because in most cases they did not deserve it.

That is the downside of the British press as we know it. I agree totally with my noble friend Lord Wakeham. Even with an ombudsman, there is statutory interference in the background which cannot be ignored. Statutory regulation of the press and other media has to be enforced in black and white. "Black and white and read all over" is no longer a pun relevant to modern newspapers. We are aware of many cases where the freedom of the press has been democracy's most powerful weapon. Can such and such an event be reported or not? It either can or cannot. The issue is black or white; there is no grey area where one can say, "I might or might not get away with this one".

I do not believe that Chappaquiddick or Watergate would have been reported had they occurred in France. I do not believe that the scandal of the Belgian paedophile cases would not have been exposed had they occurred in this country or the United States. Whether or not you are in government, you cannot get away with it. The newspapers and their investigative journalists will find out sooner or later. I think that most of us disapprove of leaking from government and business. Nevertheless, it has some benefit from time to time.

My noble friend Lord Wakeham has had a distinguished career as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. There has been enormous improvements as a result of his activities. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, mentioned complaints. I congratulate him on his performance in that role. I am sorry that all his other activities do not seem to have received the same support.

The Press Complaints Commission has a code of conduct, as the noble Lord made clear. I do not know how many noble Lords have read the code of conduct. I have read it carefully to see how it could be improved. but I can see no way in which it can be improved. The problem is enforcing the code. Here I believe that there has been a change. The hysteria which accompanied the death of the Princess of Wales has had one good result: it has drawn the actions of the paparazzi and others who have offended against privacy to the attention of newspaper editors. The lack of privacy has shocked many people, including editors. As a result, I believe that newspapers will enforce their own code of conduct so that journalists do not print items such as they have in the past. This has nothing to do with the PCC's code of conduct. It is the editors who put the items in the newspapers.

However, one should not blame entirely the newspapers. So much of this activity—to some of us it is inexcusable—is what the public want to read. It is not only the tabloids which are guilty. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned, the Guardian has been particularly guilty in some cases as regards Mr. Fayed. But the tabloids print only what the public want. If the public did not want to read about such activity they would not buy the newspapers and the papers would not print it. So the blame must not be put only on the papers—the phrase "lowest common denominator" comes frequently to mind. If, as I believe, the work of newspapers has been essential, vital and important for democracy and for straightforwardness in public and private life, it cannot be restricted by statutory activity. We must rely on self-regulation and on the adjudications of the Press Complaints Commission; and we must hope that the editors themselves will "cool it" and not print some of the terrible things which we all know they do print in the interests of their right to publish so many articles that are absolutely vital.

4 p.m.

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, for giving the House an opportunity to discuss the role of the press in a free society. As her powerful and deeply felt speech made clear, it is a topic of high importance, but also one of great perplexity. I think that there is general agreement, both in this House and outside, that the intrusion of the press into private lives has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. But it is damned difficult to know how. We have to balance the need for a free press with the protection of the right to individual privacy. How that balance is struck, and how privacy is protected without interfering with the necessary functions of the press in a free society, is extremely difficult. Intrusion into the private lives of individuals, harassment and misrepresentation can cause great anguish. Private lives should remain private. On the other hand, as my noble friend Lord Burnham pointed out, investigative journalism is an essential safeguard against abuse of public power.

We on this side of the House are unconvinced of the need for or desirability of a privacy law, which is one of the remedies canvassed for this situation. Such a law would be available only to the rich and powerful (and not necessarily righteous), who would be able to pursue newspapers through the courts. Ordinary members of the public who had suffered unfair treatment at the hands of the press would be no better off. Privacy laws are quite general on the Continent of Europe, but they have very little effect. Moreover, it might be difficult to frame such a law so as to distinguish between unwarranted press intrusion and the legitimate rights and necessary inquiries of a free press.

I agree that the defamation laws are the most powerful remedies available in this country against misrepresentation. However, they are generally available only to the rich and powerful. The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, mentioned a number of names. She might have included that of Sir Elton John, whom the press will now be very careful about pursuing after he was awarded £1 million. But those remedies are not readily available to most people.

So we are driven to the conclusion that a voluntary code of self-regulation, policed by a body such as the Press Complaints Commission, should be the most workable solution to the problem. My noble friend Lord Wakeham has made a powerful case for such a non-statutory body. He pointed out that it provides easy access for ordinary people; that nine out of 10 complaints are satisfactorily resolved; that it is raising standards by co-operation; and that there is a tough and effective new code of practice that has been put in place. I have examined that code, and on paper it is extremely impressive. It states that all members of the press have a duty to maintain the highest ethical and professional standards. It is designed to balance the protection of the rights of individuals with the public's right to know. But how the conduct of the press will evolve under the new, and supposedly tougher, code remains to be seen—

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I wish to repeat a question which I am afraid the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, with the best will in the world, did not answer. Is it the case that if anybody wishes to make a complaint, he or she has to do so under some clause of the code? If that is the case, how on earth does the ordinary citizen know what the code is?

Lord Skidelsky

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention. That is my understanding.

Obviously, the code ought to be as widely known as possible. If an individual wants to make a complaint, as I understand it, he has to make the complaint under that code. But that is a matter of the dissemination of information. The more widely known the code is, the better it will be.

To return to my earlier remarks, the code seems to offer ample scope for interpretation. For example, subsection (i) of Clause 11, on misrepresentation, states that, Journalists must not generally obtain or seek to obtain information … through misrepresentation or subterfuge". I suppose that the Daily Mirror could justify its entrapment of the Home Secretary's son by reference to Clause 11, subsection (iii): Subterfuge can he justified only in the public interest". So there are escape clauses from responsible journalism which are slightly worrying.

For example, what is "a significant inaccuracy"? When is an apology "appropriate"? What is "a fair opportunity to reply"? When is a reply "reasonably called for"? Such fuzzy language is necessarily part of the system, but it makes one slightly sceptical as to the efficacy of such sanction as the new code makes available. And of course one sanction that is not included is any power of financial compensation. So we shall have to see how matters develop.

Despite the introduction of the new Press Complaints Commission code, there is a danger that we shall see the introduction of a new privacy law by the back door because of the Government's determination to incorporate into English and Scottish law the European Convention on Human Rights. Such a development would make the proposal for a statutory ombudsman irrelevant, because since Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights gives a right to privacy, the Bill providing for the incorporation of the convention, which has now reached its Committee stage in the Lords, will give anyone who is not happy with a judgment from the Press Complaints Commission a right to take his or her case to court, where it will be decided according to European law. If we go down that route, it makes a statutory ombudsman superfluous. However, I am not at all sure that we should be going down that route. Self-regulation is the best method available—though I accept that it is very leaky.

My Lords, in conclusion, we probably have to put up with a rough press. I believe it is the necessary price that has to be paid for a free society. I should not so much mind a rough press, if it were not such a trivial press. That is the main change that has taken place over my lifetime. It has become more and more trivial. It is all very well to say that this is what people want, but we do not always believe in giving people what they want. They want many things that we do not give them because of the bad effects it might have.

When I read the lead story in last Saturday's Times. Blair trip clouded by Cook's love life", my reaction was: "This is a world adrift". I wondered what people would have felt had they read in The Times in 1919, "Treaty of Versailles clouded by Lloyd George's love-life", or "Cuban missile crisis derailed by Kennedy's love-life". In the past there was a convention that such matters were not discussed; that it was not the ability of leaders to lead effectively that was being impaired by their love-lives, it was press intrusion that would impair their ability to lead effectively. That convention has entirely gone. I cannot rid myself of the feeling that Mr. Blair's trip was news and Mr. Cook's love life is not news. Perhaps I am wrong; maybe Mr. Blair's trip was of no importance whatsoever and Mr. Cook's love-life is very important. I hope that I am not wrong.

I am sure that this issue will not go away. We, for our part, shall keep it under constant scrutiny.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, perhaps I may ask leave of the House to say to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that the code of conduct is a published document, which is very easily obtainable. It is in all public libraries and is on the Internet. No one need have any fear of being unable to know what is in it.

4.10 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, it is conventional to thank the proposer of a Motion for a debate of this kind for the timeliness and importance of the debate. I yield to none in paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Turner with regard to the importance of the debate. I have some problems with regard to the timeliness, to which I shall refer later, in that there has been considerable reference in the debate to the Human Rights Bill, which will have its Report stage in this House next Monday, and also to the Data Protection Bill, which was given its First Reading only an hour or so ago and will not be printed until tomorrow and is therefore not available for discussion. That is no fault of my noble friend's; she is fully entitled to have raised the issue. I pay tribute to her both for doing so and for the way in which she did so. Clearly her speech was the result of profound conviction and personal experience. I think she knows that, in a much smaller way, I have had comparable personal experiences which make me sympathise with her that much more.

I believe that my noble friend Lord Longford knows that a couple of years ago I introduced a debate in this House on the regime in prison for those sentenced to whole life imprisonment—in other words, who will never be released. I suggested that, if they were to spend their old age in prison, there should be a different regime for them. I was telephoned while I was on holiday by a journalist from the Sunday Express, who questioned me about the issue and whose questions I answered. As I heard the questions, it appeared to me that what the newspaper was interested in, above all, was Myra Hindley. I said to the journalist, on the telephone from France: "You will not say that I am arguing in favour of the release of Myra Hindley; the debate was about the regime".

What happened, my Lords? The entire front page of the Sunday Express was taken up by the headline "Labour Peer bids to free evil Hindley". When I protested, the Deputy Editor said: "Yes, of course, you are entitled to protest. We will print a reply". Three weeks later a reply appeared at the bottom of a page, somewhere between pages 16 and 19—I cannot remember exactly where—not in any way apologising for that gross misrepresentation but simply reporting that I had protested about it rather than admitting that the newspaper had done anything wrong. If anyone thinks I have no sympathy with my noble friends, they should think again, because I have.

As to the importance of the issue, the centrality of it to the existence of a democratic society has been made clear in the debate. The problem is that there are conflicting interests in a democratic society, as is made clear in the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 8 of the European convention says: Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence". Article 10 of the convention says: Everyone has the right to freedom of expression". I shall not give the whole of the text of the European convention; that is for debate on another day. It must be clear to your Lordships that the potential for conflict between freedom of expression and privacy is what this debate and this part of the European Convention are all about. As noble Lords have said, it is central to a democratic society.

I say from the outset that this Government believe, as did the previous Government, that self-regulation is the preferable solution to the resolution of that conflict. Such conflicts will never be entirely resolved, but we must look to resolution of them. We believe that an effective self-regulation of the kind operated by the Press Complaints Commission is the right way ahead to resolve the difficulties which have been expressed this afternoon. We do so because the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct makes it clear that its interest is in conciliation—in other words, in resolving problems—rather than in confrontation. The code covers the issue of intrusion into privacy in considerable detail, talking about the problems of persistent pursuit, defining what is meant by "private premises" and "private life"; paying particular attention to the restrictions on the press in reporting about children; being concerned with issues regarding intrusion on individuals experiencing grief and shock. The code is concerned with the issue of inaccuracy. Complaints of inaccuracy are a major part of the complaints to the Press Complaints Commission but are not covered by the European Convention on Human Rights and it would be very difficult for the issue to be covered by any law on privacy or the statutory regulation which my noble friend Lady Turner asks for. The Press Complaints Commission is concerned with the right of reply. although specifically not with compensation.

After the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, published proposals, on 25th September last year, for a very much strengthened code. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, publicly welcomed the proposals. On the 19th December the Commission published a revised code, which unfortunately in some ways weakens some of the improvements contained in the proposals published on the 25th September. We have some difficulties with the revised code and my right honourable friend will be writing to the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, about the outstanding problems.

Fundamentally, whatever the defects may be—and none of these things will ever be perfect—we believe that self-regulation is preferable to statutory regulation because it is more likely to go into the detail which is necessary to protect individuals and, above all, because it is free to the complainant, a claim which can never be made about the courts.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, does the Government's policy of self-regulation for the industry include any penalties?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

No, my Lords, we do not believe that if penalties or the payment of compensation were imposed, the virtues of a self-regulatory system could be maintained. If penalties were imposed and compensation were available, the freedom with which the press accepts the Press Complaints Commission and its code would be damaged, as would the ability of individuals to have their complaints considered.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, for giving way. Further to what he has said, can he say whether it is a criminal offence, as opposed to a civil offence, to bug people's houses or flats? I believe that is very important.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we are moving into the complicated discussions which we had on the Police Bill last year, where the power of anybody to bug people's houses or flats was very much in question. The issue is one on which I am not qualified to give a definitive answer. Though bugging of itself may not be an offence, the intrusion into a person's home to place the bugs almost certainly would be.

Why do we not believe in statutory regulation of the kind proposed by both my noble friends? This is a history which goes back more than 300 years. In peacetime there has been no executive control of the press in this country since 1696. It has been a principle of the freedom of the press on which so many of our liberties have depended that there should be no such control. Of course, that does not mean that under no circumstances and at no time there could not be any supplement to self-regulation. We had to introduce statutory controls in war time. If it were shown that self-regulation did not work, then we would have to reconsider the position. I do not believe that to be the case and I do not believe that even the dramatic examples given in the course of this debate lead to that conclusion.

One of the major problems is practicality. How would statutory regulation work? In practice it would replace self-regulation rather than complement it. As I have said, a large part of self-regulation is about problems of inaccuracy and those would be unregulated if statutory regulation were introduced. How would statutory regulation deal with the right of reply? Would it say that a full front page in the Sunday Express which was inaccurate had to be replied to by another full front page in the newspaper? Though I have complaints about the way in which my response was treated, that would not be a reasonable proposition. Above all, the problem with a statutory regulation would be that it would depend on access to the courts, and with the best will in the world neither this Government nor any other government have achieved free access to the courts for all those who wish to make use of it. That above all is why statutory regulation would be a major problem.

It is also very much a blunt instrument. Access to the courts is easier for the powerful and the rich, as has been said on a number of occasions. Statutory regulation would be much wider than a privacy law in itself, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, recognised. It would be more likely to result in the cover up of matters of great public interest, such as those referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Burnham and Lord Skidelsky. rather than in an improvement in the protection of the public.

We will be and have been accused of introducing statutory regulation by the back door through the Human Rights Bill and possibly the Data Protection Bill, though there is nothing as yet to comment on. The answer to that is given clearly by the Lord Chancellor in his speech in the Committee stage of the Human Rights Bill and in the press release which he issued after that Committee stage. He said that he had been persuaded by counsel to the Press Complaints Commission that the Press Complaints Commission was in fact a public authority within the meaning of the Bill. He went on to say, But, if so, this is good news for the press, because the courts will regard the Press Complaints Commission as the primary body to provide effective protection to people who suffer from press abuses. Provided, therefore, that self regulation is strong and effective the courts will not intervene with injunctions … other than in the most extreme circumstances it is consistent with the Convention to leave these difficult questions of judgment to the relevant specialist body"— and that, in this case, is the Press Complaints Commission. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, in the Committee stage debate, said, I believe that the press has nothing to fear in the development of a common law right of personal privacy whether under this Bill or at common law".—[Official Report, 24/11/97; col. 778.] I know that there will be debates next week on the Human Rights Bill and it is not competent for me to anticipate what will be said in those debates and what conclusion will result. The Government's position on this is clear. Even if, as we believe, the Press Complaints Commission is a public authority and therefore within the scope of the Bill, this is a good thing for press freedom and a good thing for self-regulation of the press.

I want to refer to one final issue before I sit down—that is, the issue of prior restraint which has not been much referred to in this debate but is still of considerable importance. If we were to introduce a system whereby it would be possible—and worse, easy—for anybody to go to the courts and obtain an injunction to prevent publication by the press, in certain circumstances that could be a restriction of the freedom of the press which would be undesirable. All I am able to say about that at this time is that the Government are aware of those dangers; they are discussing those dangers with the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, and his colleagues on the Press Complaints Commission. I hope that a mutually satisfactory result will be available from them.

It would have been impossible for me, in concluding this debate, to satisfy both my noble friend Lady Turner and the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Their views on what should be done are virtually diametrically opposed. In repeating the often expressed view of the Government, I hope that I have shown that self-regulation is the better alternative; that our support for self-regulation in no way diminishes our support for strong and effective self-regulation and for the protection of individuals in our society.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—I must declare an interest as a member of the Press Complaints Commission—one matter has not been touched on and perhaps the noble Lord will comment. It arises out of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and the noble Earl, Lord Longford; that is, that neither self-regulation nor statutory regulation should or can affect opinion or taste in newspaper matters.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I did not follow the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, in his attack on the triviality of the press, though I have sympathy with it. That is not a matter for government.

4.28 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank those noble Lords who contributed to the debate, which has been a most interesting one. Perhaps I may say from the outset that I believe I made it clear that I was not advocating a privacy law, nor was I advocating an end to investigative journalism. On the contrary. I am in favour of investigative journalism, which has had a great deal to contribute to improvements in social reform and so forth.

I very much believe in freedom of the press. I am simply seeking redress for individuals who have been damaged as a result of the exercise of those freedoms. I was attempting to say that I did not believe, despite what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, that self-regulation had effectively provided sufficient redress and sufficient protection for people who are damaged as a result of those press freedoms. I recommended that there should be an independent ombudsman mainly because access to an independent ombudsman is free.

I was involved with ombudsman schemes through the Financial Services Act. It is true that they were part of self regulation, but that will change as a result of changes in the financial services provisions. The ombudsman schemes in those situations were able to provide compensation to people who felt they had been damaged, and they were free. It is true that an appeal against an ombudsman's decision was to the courts, but that rarely took place. Generally speaking, the ombudsman's decisions were accepted and people were satisfied that they had had justice. I was seeking a similar arrangement to apply to the press. I note that this is not likely to secure very much support from our Front Bench and therefore from the Government. However, this is by no means the end of the argument.

As I indicated in my opening speech, this is an ongoing issue. There will continue to be people who are damaged as a result of stories in the press. There will continue to be individuals who have been damaged as a result of intrusions into privacy and who will claim that they have been bugged and have suffered surveillance. They will feel that they are not getting sufficient redress under the provisions applied by the Press Complaints Commission.

As I said in my opening remarks, I think that the press complaints code is excellent, and I commended the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, because I know that he has had a great deal to do with the introduction of the code. I was glad to note from his statement that this is by no means the end of the road and that he is continuing to watch the situation. There may be changes; there may be improvements; there may even be a provision by the PCC to introduce a compensation scheme. That would be excellent. However, in the meantime, it seems to me that problems will continue to arise. Problems have arisen since I drafted my Motion before the Christmas Recess.

I emphasise once again that I do not want to interfere with the right of journalists to do their job and to perform the function which in a democratic society we wish them to perform. I accept that we have honourable and ethically minded journalists. I am reminded that when James Cameron, a journalist of shining integrity, was very young he had just secured his first job on a major daily, the Daily Mail. It was soon after the war. That newspaper ran a continuing story against a Labour Government Minister, John Strachey. Cameron knew that what the newspaper was saying was not true. He had no other job to go to and he had a young family to support. After some heart searching, he resigned his job on the Daily Mail and wrote a letter to The Times to explain why he had done so. That had the effect of scuppering that campaign of personal harassment and defamation.

One of the most important things Cameron said in his autobiography—this really made an impression on me—was that his attitude would have been the same had the newspaper for which he worked targeted Winston Churchill or Eden in the same way; in other words, people for whom he did not have political sympathy. He believed that that kind of journalism was wrong. I believe that it is wrong too, and it was because I believe it is wrong that I introduced this Motion today. I thank all those who contributed to what has been a very good debate. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.