HL Deb 28 June 1999 vol 603 cc1-4

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether Ministers have had any discussions with the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission following recent intrusions into personal privacy by tabloid newspapers.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, Ministers meet the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, from time to time to discuss press regulation matters. My noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn, for example, met the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, on 27th April to discuss the Government's criminal memoirs review. There have, however, been no formal discussions in direct response to the events to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, is referring.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware of repeated intrusions into privacy by one or two tabloid newspapers, including the particularly obnoxious example that occurred only a few weeks ago? Does he agree that one of the most unattractive features of that particular example was the newspaper benefiting commercially, followed by an entirely hypocritical apology to those who were involved in that very unhappy episode? Finally, is the noble Lord further aware that one of the most disagreeable aspects of the whole matter is that a number of people who suffer from the activities of tabloid newspapers decide not to pursue their complaints for fear that, if they do, there will be still further intrusions into their privacy?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, we do not normally comment on individual cases. I imagine that the noble Lord is referring to the Countess of Wessex and the Sun. We were pleased that the matter was resolved without recourse to adjudication. On the noble Lord's final point, yes, I agree with him entirely.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with some of the remarks made by the noble Lord who asked the Question. Yet, when one examines the alternative of a statutorily based system, one finds that it would cost an enormous amount of money for people to pursue such matters; it would take a great deal of time; and it is very unlikely that the courts would award anything like the kind of damages that would make it worth while. The fact is that people would not use a legally based system—and that is without taking into account even the effect of the Internet. Self-regulation is by no means perfect, but I suggest to the Minister that it is a great deal better than the alternatives.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government's view has consistently been that strong and effective self-regulation is better than a statutory regime. But, for that to work, it requires either that people are much more willing to come forward with complaints, which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, or that the commission extends the use of the power that it already has to investigate complaints of its own volition.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that this practice is even more unacceptable than cheque-book journalism?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, these are both problems that the press and the media generally have to face. I do not know that I would put a value on either of them. Cheque-book journalism, if it results in distortion and invasion of privacy, is very bad; intrusion on privacy in itself, even if there is no money involved, is very bad. That is true, whether or not those involved are in the public eye.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, although self-regulation may be preferable to a statutory regime, as the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, has said and as I gather the Minister agrees, would it not be a good thing to warn the press in the strongest possible terms that, unless self-regulation is made to work, a statutory regime may have to be considered?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I said that strong self-regulation is preferable to a statutory regime. Despite some recent very bad examples, I believe that matters have very mildly improved, because the Press Complaints Commission has had greater self-confidence in recent years than perhaps it had in the past. I am not sure that making threats from the Government Dispatch Box is the right way to proceed.

Lord Luke

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the most important person in any instance like this is the victim? If that is the case, does he further agree that proactive moves by the PCC, which have been mooted in certain quarters, would inevitably cause distress to victims who, in most cases, would far rather not have any publicity at all?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, discussion about the investigation of complaints on the volition of the PCC must always take that point into account. Clearly, if the victim positively does not want an investigation to be carried out, any inquiry will have to be abandoned very rapidly. That is the difficult kind of balance with which the Press Complaints Commission must deal.

Lord Annan

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the public would have greater confidence in the Press Complaints Commission if it had power to fine summarily newspapers that abused the privacy of members of the public?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if that happened the PCC would become, almost by osmosis, a public body and begin to have the powers and sanctions that would arise under a statutory regime. One does not create a statutory regime necessarily by legislation; one creates it if one has the powers to fine of the kind that the noble Lord advocates.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, bearing in mind that the proprietor of many of the tabloids is Mr Rupert Murdoch, who has recently married, do the Government have any indication whether his new wife will have a positive influence upon him?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have no idea—and I do not think I care.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, can the noble Lord explain the difference in terms of impact between a complaint upheld and a complaint dismissed?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if a complaint is upheld by the PCC, the newspaper concerned has a duty to apologise in a form prescribed by the commission.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I rise to assist the Minister. What is the result of increasing circulation by a quarter of a million and defying the Press Complaints Commission? The answer is a slap on the wrist from the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham. Unless the PCC has real teeth, it will continue to be ignored, and everybody knows it.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Lord is edging towards the view of the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that there should be a fine to reflect the advantage that the newspaper gains through an invasion of privacy. We do not agree. If we did that, we would de facto have a statutory complaints procedure.

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