HL Deb 19 July 1999 vol 604 cc657-9

2.56 p.m.

Lord McNally asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they intend to publish the outcome of their criminal memoirs review.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the review hopes to complete its work in September. Publication of the report will follow shortly afterwards.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that there has been a pattern to media stories over recent years; for example, some editor commits a transgression; the Press Complaints Commission falls on the issue to deaden it; in pile the Home Office, or the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; and then the issue disappears until the next transgression? Does the noble Lord also agree that, rather than have this ad hoc method of dealing with such problems regarding privacy, criminal memoirs and a whole range of media issues, it is now time to set up a Royal Commission on the press? It could look at both technological changes and changes in social behaviour, together with many other issues, which have changed radically since the press as a whole was looked into nearly 25 years ago when the third Royal Commission on the press since the war was established by my noble friend Lord Jenkins.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, we have no plans to set up any such Royal Commission. There is always the temptation to believe—although experiences shows it to be an unbased belief—that a Royal Commission will provide the answer to such problems. The problems regarding publication relate to privacy, confidentiality and the matter with which the noble Lord is especially concerned; namely, criminal memoirs. I suggest that we need to bear in mind the fact that the press covers a very broad spectrum ranging from those publications which are virtually comics to those which are serious broadsheets. I am not sure that a Royal Commission would be able to deal with those matters.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is it not deeply offensive to the general public that convicted criminals should publish their memoirs, especially for profit, whether they are published during their sentences or afterwards? Moreover, is it not also deeply hurtful to the victims of such crimes and their families? Can the Minister tell the House whether convicted criminals being released in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act will be covered by any restrictions which will come out of this review?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I agree that the publication of criminal memoirs by people in some circumstances is deeply hurtful. Indeed, I believe that the noble Lord and I have agreed across these Dispatch Boxes in the past that the resurrection of old memories and old hurts is very difficult.

We cannot categorise every person who comes out of prison in the same way. Recently, the Daily Telegraph was censured by the Press Complaints Commission for the Victoria Aitken interview. When Mr Aitken comes out of prison, is it to be suggested that he is not entitled to write a book of any sort? I simply raise that question to indicate to the House that it is not always as simple as people assume.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House what protection we have against further so-called "poetry" from Mr Aitken?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the usual sanctions that the law imposes. In this case, 18 months' imprisonment for a first offence!

Lord Pilkington of Oxenford

My Lords, as a former chairman of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission I ask whether the Government have given thought to the fact that when privacy is invaded we all hide behind the answers that the Minister gave. I think, for example, of films on the situation in Northern Ireland where the press and the media get away with an awful lot. Should not the Government give some thought to the distress that is caused to people?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, in answer to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, I have already indicated that of course we give thought to this matter. However, I repeat that it is not an easy problem to resolve. A considerable number of works of literature have been produced in prison. I think, for instance, of the works produced in Bedford gaol by John Bunyan or those written by Mr Mandela while in prison on Robben Island. That is one end of the spectrum. At the other end of the spectrum is the grossly offensive material that the noble Lord has mentioned. However, I simply suggest to your Lordships—I think rightly and fairly—that this is by no means a simple matter to deal with by a single instrument of policy.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I think the House will welcome the fact that the Minister has given a definite timetable for the conclusion of this review; namely, September, when, of course, the House will not be sitting. Would he be surprised to find that I had tabled a Question in October on the Government's reaction to the review? If the review proposes legislation, will the Home Office be prepared to legislate in the next Session?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord lays a trap for me which I shall not leap into. I said that the body hoped to complete its work. in September—I imagine, subject to what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, tells me, that we shall not be sitting at that time—and that publication of the report would follow. As the noble Lord knows much better than I, I could not possibly anticipate the contents of the Queen's Speech.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I must first declare an interest as a director of a small local newspaper company. The noble Lord rightly said that these matters are difficult, but is he generally satisfied with the present legal regime?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is no legal regime that relates to the Press Complaints Commission. As the noble Lord knows from his own experience, it is a voluntary, self-regulatory body. I think that it is fair to say, objectively speaking, that recently both the local and the national press have been much more alive to their responsibilities and to public concern. Although the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, is not present, I am bound to say that I believe that he has taken the regime forward, although not as far as everyone would like. However, one has to give credit where it rightly falls due.