§ [Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee Session 2002–03 HC 458–I and the responses thereto, and First Special Report Session 2003–04 HC 213.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Kemp.]2.30 pm
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
On behalf of the members of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, let me say how much we appreciate the opportunity to debate the report. Although it was issued last year, its resonances are still with us, which is not surprising given that this is not the first time that a Committee under my chairmanship has dealt with the issue. It is almost 11 years to the day since the National Heritage Select Committee published a report entitled "Privacy and Media Intrusion". It is remarkable—two Parliaments and two Select Committees later, with a new Government in a new century—that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee should feel it necessary to carry out a further inquiry on precisely the same subject. That shows that this remains a live issue, which will not go away, regardless of the reactions of those responsible to our report. I welcome the presence of Committee members from both sides of the House, who put a great deal of work into the report.
Although advances in technology, such as mobile phones and computers, may have increased the possibility of intrusions into the privacy of individuals and families, the basic issues remain the same as they were more than 11 years ago, and the two Committees approached them from the same starting point. Like the House and the wider public, my colleagues and I believe in a free press—one that is privately owned, unshackled, able fearlessly to probe wrongdoing by individuals and organisations and able to hold Governments to account. We believe in self-regulation, not legislative shackles.
In approaching their inquiries, both Committees sought to establish whether self-regulation could be made to work better, although the latest report acknowledges more clearly than we could in the previous report that there have been considerable improvements in the results obtained by the Press Complaints Commission. I very much welcome the breath of fresh air introduced by Sir Christopher Meyer, and I pay tribute to Lord Wakeham, with whom I worked on the royal commission on the reform of the House of Lords and keep in touch on several issues. Basically, although not solely, both reports recommend ways in which self-regulation might work better.
The second point that I want to make clear is that neither Committee was concerned with celebrities and public figures. Such people are generally able to take care of themselves. They are familiar with the media and 490WH its practices and, as I shall point out later, some of them have quite a lot of money with which to pursue their grievances. However, we do take the view that celebrities and public figures are as entitled as anyone else to a private life, provided that they do not try to have it both ways by exploiting their privacy for publicity or financial gain. When we conducted our previous inquiry, I recall saying how much I resented, on his behalf, the intrusions into Norman Lamont's private credit-card transactions. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, but no one had any business to know anything about how he conducted his private finances.
The Committee's overriding concern is for private persons, who do not seek publicity, but who may suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of publicity through circumstances not of their choosing and which they would prefer not to have occurred. Because they are private persons, whose only acquaintance with the media is to buy and read a newspaper or to turn on their television and radio, they have no idea how to cope with the way in which an interested media can confront and surround them when, for example, something distressing happens to their family that can put them on the front pages of the newspapers.
Eleven years ago, the concerns of the National Heritage Committee included intrusion into the lives of rape victims and of families of servicemen killed in Northern Ireland. Happily, servicemen are no longer killed in Northern Ireland, but our inquiry last summer focused again on victims of crime, as well as families of servicemen in Iraq.
On both occasions, we welcomed the work being done by the PCC and sought, through our recommendations, to enhance the effectiveness of that work. For example, in our National Heritage Committee report we recommended that compliance with the PCC code of practice should be written into every journalist's contract of employment. The immediate reaction from the PCC was to oppose that recommendation and to say that it was not practicable. However, that provision now forms part of most, if not all, journalists' contracts of employment. It therefore behoves us all, including members of the Committee, to keep open minds when something new is put to us.
Sometimes our recommendations are vindicated. Last year, when the inquiry report that we are debating today was about to be published, it was anticipated, in some quarters, with dire forebodings. It was denounced in advance as "a censor's charter." Mr. Guy Black, the then director of the PCC, who has now moved on to higher things, was particularly blunt about what he thought we were up to. Just before the report was published, the PCC even gave a warning that it might lodge a complaint against us with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—the whole Select Committee would have been up for judgment.
However, once the report was published, all was sweetness and light.The Mail on Sunday, which was one of the newspapers most worried about what the report might say, welcomed our approach. So did The Sun. If I may say so without being patronising, which I have no right to be, the Committee was particularly impressed with the evidence and the approach of Rebekah Wade, the editor of The Sun. If some other witnesses had 491WH comported themselves with the dignity of Rebekah Wade, our sittings might have been a little less convulsive.
We went from being seen as malevolent spoilers to being thoughtful and constructive overnight. The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, Sir Christopher Meyer, whose appointment to the commission I have already welcomed, welcomed our report and stated that he was ready to consider implementing some of our recommendations. The letter that he sent me and the PCC response were predominantly constructive. That does not mean to say that it accepted everything that we propose, as I shall point out. Nor did we expect them to do so. However, the tone was calm and dispassionate, and I particularly welcomed Sir Christopher's response to our suggestion that we might have periodic catching-up sessions with the PCC that are similar to the ones that we have with the chairman and governors of the BBC and the chairman of the Office of Communications. That might be a very useful development.
The PCC welcomed our suggestion that its code of practice should be updated to take account of developments in communications and of relevant legislation, such as the Data Protection Act 1998—an Act that in some ways has made it more difficult to obtain information but which acts as a protection to private citizens. Certainly, it should protect private citizens. The PCC agreed with our recommendation—indeed, it acted in advance of it—that lay members of the commission should be appointed for fixed terms and that the lay majority should be increased by one. It also agreed that the appointments system for lay members should be much more open and give more opportunities to people who might not usually be regarded as the great and the good.
The PCC shared our view that the appointments commission should appoint an independent figure to implement a procedural appeals process. Earlier this year, it appointed its first charter commissioner. Again, that is progress. The PCC is consulting the industry on our proposal that the text of a PCC adjudication should be clearly and consistently set out.
Many people—I am one of them—have found that a newspaper can cause an offence against someone and be found to have breached the code or to be otherwise at fault, but that the apology is not necessarily in proportion to the offence. I was blackguarded all over the front page of the Sunday Express. The entire front page was given over to my crimes. When it was acknowledged that those crimes did not exist, the apology was buried somewhere in the middle of the newspaper such that one almost needed a magnifying glass to find it. As I said, I can stick up for myself, but the aggrieved feelings of ordinary citizens placed in that predicament are not so easily assuaged.
The Committee proposed that the text of the PCC adjudication should be clearly and consistently set out. The PCC has not accepted outright that a taster for an apology should be published on the front page of a newspaper, but we hope that it will. It does, however, favour what it calls "due prominence" and is keeping the matter under review. Importantly, it agrees that the press archives should be annotated so that offending 492WH material is removed from publicly available databases. We all know what happened in the past if something inaccurate, intrusive or objectionable were published about someone. Tagging was not available. Anyone looking up the story either in newspaper clippings or on the internet would find it and use it. Therefore, we welcome the PCC acceptance of the annotation decision.
§ Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (Lab)
Does my right lion. Friend agree that an apology on the front page would go a long way to allay people's fears and address their concerns? It would also make journalists and editors who put such articles on the front page think again about doing so unless they are sure of the facts.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I agree entirely. When members of the PCC appeared before us in this inquiry and on the previous occasion, it was said again and again that journalists and editors have a feeling of shame if a complaint against their newspaper is upheld and they have to publish an apology. That would be more emphatic if due prominence were given to it and particularly if it was mentioned on the front page of a newspaper. I hope that the PCC will come round to our recommendation.
It would be misleading to imply that the PCC has simply rubber-stamped our report. There are aspects with which it disagrees or which it rejected outright. For example, it does not agree with our view that journalists should be entitled to refuse assignments that they believe would violate the code. I hope that the PCC will reconsider that as, on a previous occasion, it reconsidered the question of inserting the code into contracts of employment.
The PCC is not as firm as we would like about reminding newspapers about taking special care in advance with events and issues—for example, the Iraq war—that may generate intense media activity. I acknowledge immediately that most sensible newspapers would take great care in such situations. However, one of my hon. Friends who represents a Plymouth constituency drew to the attention of the House her concerns that before the Iraq war the families of servicemen who had gone to the Gulf were already being approached by newspapers. Any family would be vulnerable at that time, and a little over-fastidiousness is appropriate in such circumstances.
The PCC does not accept our view that it should publish annual league tables showing how publications have fared in relation to complaints and adjudications. I suppose that we could all compile a database, but such league tables would be yet another weapon in the PCC armoury, in that persistently offending newspapers would once a year be held up for attention. That would improve self-regulation. Nor does the PCC accept our view that in some cases successful complainants should be compensated financially, that offending publications should be fined when 'appropriate, or that complainants' costs, for example, in obtaining transcripts of trials, should be reimbursed. Of course, our Committee accepts that any such penalties should be administered sensibly. It would not be a good idea, for example, to pay expenses to somebody whose complaint was not upheld. Nevertheless, and taking into account the 493WH wealth of some newspapers, we believe that the ability to use both fines and compensation would be an appropriate weapon—not invariably to be used, but available if the PCC felt that a publication had offended particularly seriously.
Although we are gratified with the general response of the PCC to our report, we believe that the PCC and the Government could be more responsive on two major issues. The first is media scrums. We are pleased to see that the PCC has accepted our recommendation that it should co-operate with the Office of Communications in preventing them. Of course, our report dealt with radio and television as well as with the printed press. We have a completely new body in Ofcom, and we will all be watching to see how it deals with complaints. However, there are far fewer complaints of intrusions on privacy from radio and television than from the printed press.
When it comes to doorstepping, however, all public figures who have suffered from it know how intimidating can be an agglomeration of microphones—those woolly things like huge cats—when thrust into one's face; but such people are often surrounded also by a mass of journalists with notebooks calling out for comments. It must be incomparably more alarming for private individuals, whose predicament as victims of crime or as bereaved relatives is hard enough to bear in itself. It is made worse by the sieges that can sometimes take place, with pavement mobs, access to and from their homes blocked and telephone lines jammed by incessant, unwanted calls. All that can range to remote members of their families.
The National Heritage Committee report drew attention to fairly old legislation that deals with besetting, suggesting that it could be brought back into use. It was meant to deal with picketing trade unionists, but it ought to be used again because we believe that the sheer burden of doorstepping, particularly for private individuals, should be dealt with by the police.
Secondly, there is the issue of payments to police for tip-offs. It is true that such action is a criminal offence, but that ought not to relieve the Press Complaints Commission from reminding editors that they should not do it, either directly or through private detectives. The growth in the use of private detectives is something that was brought to our attention repeatedly when we were carrying out our inquiry. With admirable frankness, some editors conceded that they have done it, but it is wrong. It is corruption; it is bribery; it is a breach by those police who do it of their terms of employment. Even though it is a criminal offence, it would not harm the PCC to insert a prohibition in its code of practice and to remind editors about it. Nor ought its illegality preclude the Government from reminding chief constables and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to enforce the prohibition.
I have to say, with all good will to the Minister for the Arts, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Estelle Morris), that the Government's response to our report was a good deal more passive than that of the Press Complaints Commission. I know from many years' experience that Governments are wary of offending the press. When we published our report in 1993, the then Conservative Government could have been very worried that if they took action that was offensive to the press, it would turn against them, but the press turned against them anyhow.
494WH Who knows when the general election will be? The Government, who as everyone knows have my total support, may be worried that taking action in this sphere could offend newspapers. I pick up my newspapers every day and it does not seem to me that it needs very much to cause them offence, so the Government might as well take action.
It is no good saying that legal recourse is available to victims of intrusion who feel that they should be compensated, as I fear that the Government did in response to the report, because that requires resources. Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones, and Sara Cox had recourse to redress in the courts. When photographs of Sara Cox and her husband on their honeymoon, bathing unclothed, were published in The Sunday People—the editor was a member of the Press Complaints Commission Mr. Guy Black implied that Sara Cox was a spoilsport for going to the law. But the Press Complaints Commission obtained a 63-word apology from The Sunday People for the gross way in which the privacy of Sara Cox and her husband had been violated. The couple received £50,000-worth of damages and the legal action cost £250,000. That was a useful lesson. It is why, 11 years ago, we recommended consideration of a privacy law with a strong public interest defence.
The National Heritage Committee report listed in an appendix the provisions of the privacy laws of states in the USA. They were not brutally restrictive; they all provided a public interest defence. Many journalists in this country believe that journalists in the United States have much more freedom than ours do here and that they are not inhibited by legislation of that kind. Taking into account the United States, such laws are not regarded as licences for big brother to swoop or snoop. We believe that that should be considered, not to be oppressive or to limit the freedom of the press, but always with the strong public interest defence that enabled a jury to acquit Clive Ponting of violating the Official Secrets Act when he was prosecuted for doing so.
We expressed our concern that the Human Rights Act 1998, under which Sara Cox took legal action, is becoming by default a privacy law, but it is a privacy law only for the rich, made by judges, not by Parliament. Press and public reaction to our report acknowledged that even when we do not agree, the issues we considered are important for a free democracy. Whether we wait another two Parliaments before returning to the subject under my chairmanship may depend on progress meanwhile.
§ Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on the reasonableness of his approach and on his elegance. I am glad that our debate is likely to be broadcast on radio rather than television, as I would not have his boldness in making the Select Committee recommendations or in respect of how his tie and shirt complement each other.
I ought to declare that I have, on occasion, taken defamation proceedings against newspapers. I hope never to do so again, whether justified or not, because it is not a nice experience. I have also made some use of the 495WH Press Complaints Commission in relation to a member of my family. I am putting that on the record, rather than trying to develop an argument from it.
When Sir David Calcutt's report came out, I thought that he was wrong. From what I recall of the National Heritage Committee's report, I thought that it went too far. The present report is better balanced, although I prefer the Government's response and some of their recommendations that do not agree with the report. I do not regard myself as an expert on the detail of such issues.
I think that it is important that there are always people in Parliament who will defend the role of the media to suck up all the dirt, to sift it and to decide what is true, what matters and what is publishable. There is a danger that the action of the Data Protection Act 1998 is leading a number of people to withhold information from the media—that includes official bodies such as courts. In Worthing, one of our local newspapers, the Worthing Herald, has found it difficult to persuade court officials to allow information about what has happened in court into the open. People can argue that data protection or privacy allows them to withhold information that ought to be made available to all. The role of the media is to make available to all what is known to a few.
I recognise that the debate is primarily about privacy and not about defamation, but the issues can come together for those who want to maintain their privacy or to maintain a degree of privacy about actions that they have taken or are thought to have taken. The press need to have the right to he wrong; they need to have the right to do what is wrong, and they need to be robust enough to take the criticism or the exposure when that comes. The best way of dealing with that is generally for broadcasters to be prepared to be robust about the printed press and for the printed press to be robust about the broadcasters. I regret that some programmes—I think that "Hard News", with Ray Snoddy, was one of them—are no longer available that could give a running commentary, not quite in real time but within a week, on what has been going on. Some newspaper articles are good, but in general one needs to have a programme and a set of columns that are prepared to go into issues as though they are as interesting as debates in Parliament are at times.
Too often, the herd instinct of the media leads to the kind of scrum that has been properly referred to in the Select Committee report. It is curious, and it has been observed elsewhere, that the number of pickets that can be outside someone's house is limited, but that there is no limit on the number of media people who can be there. I do not think that there is a statutory answer to that, besides in extreme cases getting an order from a magistrate banishing people to a certain distance.
The PCC and the broadcasting regulators should be able to take the kind of action to which the Select Committee referred. It is a practical problem that is capable of resolution, but there have been some disasters on a fairly grand scale, and it is difficult to see how that can happen in the short term. For example, with the terrible consequences of the bombs in Madrid today, where hundreds have been killed and injured, it is ludicrous to believe that there will not be some 496WH intrusion into privacy. I can think of four other examples: the King's Cross tube disaster, the Kegworth plane crash, the Heysel stadium disaster and the funeral of Oscar Romero in San Salvador.
Where the media are either present or attracted, the intrusion will cause a great deal of shock and horror to some families when they discover that someone that they are close to has been involved. That is unavoidable. However, some intrusion is avoidable, and the Press Complaints Commission, or perhaps the local police and a certain sense of restraint among the media, managed to achieve that in Soham. That is an example of where there were very few substantiated complaints of serious intrusion.
The problem for the media is where to draw the line between investigation and the herd instinct: the mentality that they need to be there because everybody else is there. I defend the media most on the issue of what I call digging for dirt. For example, if one of my constituents were to say that the insurance for his block of flats appeared to be coming out at six times the rate at which an ordinary insurance company would cover it and wonder whether the freeholder, who takes out the insurance and then passes the cost on to the leaseholders or tenants, is ripping them off, obviously, it is possible to ask the police to take an interest in whether there might be a fraud, or, on a larger scale, to ask the Serious Fraud Office to investigate, but it is often just as easy to find a local or regional newspaper that will investigate the matter and then raise the question in the open, while insurance companies will say that it is a privacy or data protection issue.
The media should be encouraged to take on such cases, because the disinfectant quality of investigation by a newspaper or broadcaster, or the transparency effect of a report, can be mighty impressive. That is what Esther Rantzen used to do on "That's Life!", and what some of the consumer protection programmes on television, and a fail number of people in the press, especially the financial press, have done.
The Select Committee's main concern is for people in their private lives rather than in business: for people to whom something happens that leads to interest from the media that they do not welcome and that many would say is not justified. I agree with the Chairman of the Select Committee that the newspapers can be pretty arbitrary in some of those cases and can give them a prominence that is nor justified in the minds of most people. The question of proportionality is least susceptible to regulations laid down in the Press Complaints Commission or by the courts. It is far better to have strong arguments, criticisms and rebuttals, or attempted rebuttals, and to have the process go around again than ever to get to the stage at which we seriously believe ourselves to be at the last-chance saloon.
§ Rosemary McKenna
We heard evidence in private from people who had been seriously damaged by the media. What would the hon. Gentleman say to someone like the person who told us about a completely inaccurate report that was published on the front page of a newspaper, which was incredibly damaging to their family, and although they eventually got an apology, they still felt that they and their family had lost out?
§ Peter Bottomley
If that happened to me, I hope that I would think, "We are prepared to accept casualties in 497WH wartime, yet the open society in peacetime will not be casualty free." It is arbitrary and it is unfair. The question that we have to face is whether a system guaranteed to prevent that from happening would have a higher cost overall, and whether there would be many more innocent victims if the press were unable to go in for things that are wrong and disproportionate. In such a situation, I should hope that proprietors would admit that the complaints were justified, and would tell the editor or duty editor responsible, "You were wrong, and I'd like you to go and see the family and explain how it happened, why it happened, and that not only are we, the organisation, sorry, but that you are as well.".
The number of occasions on which proprietors have done that, or ensured that it happened, is limited. I can think of only one such example—or possibly two—involving Rupert Murdoch, and I can think of a few occasions on which newspapers have clearly got things disproportionately wrong or have been incredibly offensive to groups. What the hon. Member for Cumbernauld and Kilsyth (Rosemary McKenna) rightly says is that that happens to individuals, and individual families, and one needs to have a way of getting people to say openly, "I'm sorry, we made a mistake," if not shaming them. If people are prepared to say that, they are less likely to make the mistake in the first place.
I do not want to put too much into this debate because of the level of detail that the Select Committee went into, but I reiterate that whoever helped the Ministers to draft their reply was right: the Government are correct to be reluctant to go as far as the Committee has invited them to go.
§ 3.9 pm
§ Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
I am grateful to have an opportunity to speak in this debate, not least because the Committee went through a fascinating; process. Many of us approached the debate from the beginning with an open mind, because we recognise that a free press is one of the most important bulwarks of a free society. More than that, the right to publish one's version of a story is an essential part of a modern democracy, even though it may sometimes conflict with an individual's desire to enjoy their privacy, and the desire of their family, extended family and those whom they love to do likewise.
We did not want to examine the issues with the minds of politicians who might at any moment be subjected to all sorts of interest. Perhaps I should declare an interest myself. We also wanted to ensure that our approach would be of significant value to our constituents. I think that every member of the Committee had constituents whose story had been told, normally in a local newspaper, rather than a national newspaper. Sometimes the story had been reported fairly calmly, albeit slightly intrusively, in the local newspaper, but when it was translated into a national newspaper, the reporting was less calm and more hysterical, and carried a bigger headline. Obviously, the story also received much greater publicity, because it was in the national arena.
The intrusion into people's lives that was felt during that transition from a local newspaper to a national newspaper, sometimes without the facts having been 498WH checked a second time, added to the sadness and the sense of being violated that the individuals concerned felt. There was one such case in my constituency, although I shall not recount the details, because for me to do so would to repeat the original breach of that family's privacy. That is an example of the biggest difficulty in trying to introduce a system that matches the rights to privacy with a free press and freedom of expression. Once a newspaper or broadcaster publishes a story that breaches somebody's privacy, how can the system give that person redress without the problem being put into the public domain again?.
Probably every debating society in the land holds a debate at least once a year about whether public figures have a right to a private life, but the Committee tried to stick clearly to the understanding that that was not the issue for us. We were concerned with those who, without prior knowledge or desire, were unwittingly thrown into the limelight, such as victims of a tragedy. The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) referred to today's tragedy in Spain. Many people in Spain, and doubtless in the UK too, who watch the images of Atocha station on the news today, will be worried that they are about to see people whom they know and love in distress or injured—or, for that matter, dead.
In addition to that, however, many journalists over the coming days will understandably want—I do not mean to use a pejorative word—to crawl around, trying to find people who have been hurt or families that have been affected. In that process, the original hurt and damage can be made that much worse for families and individuals, but I do not think that any of us would want to condemn journalists for wanting to do that. They are simply trying to tell the story of a great tragedy on the European mainland. However, there must be a sense of decency, so that people are allowed to live their lives and recuperate from an event such as today's.
A similar example concerned Soham. The horrific events that we all know about were reported at some length, and that was understandable. However, in the desire to tell the fullest possible story of what had happened there, many newspapers were almost camped out in Soham. It took the local vicar, Tim Alban Jones, to stand up for the community and say. "Hang on. This community is having a very difficult time living through this process. We need a bit of space to be able to get on and rebuild it.".
Soham was very fortunate in having Tim Alban Jones, someone who obviously had depth of insight into the workings of the media, and courage and independence, to speak up in that way. However, many communities would not have that.
In my constituency, there have been two double murders in the past 18 months, in one small part of the Rhondda, in Tylorstown. The media, including the BBC in Wales. HTV and local newspapers, have dealt quite well with that community, trying not to pry too much into the private lives of neighbours and distant relatives of those affected. However, it is difficult to get the balance right, and a story of national or international renown makes the difficulty for the media even greater.
§ Peter Bottomley
The point that I want to make is slightly disconnected, but is prompted by the hon. Gentleman's remarks on Soham. Part of the report is 499WH about the media and the police. Discussion between the media and the police is often important. It may be—and I am not just speaking with hind sight that had the police and the media talked more on previous occasions, the Soham murderer's circumstances might have drawn more consistent and persistent attention. That is another example of a need to put something in the balance—not allowing payments to police, which are wrong, but recognising that the police and the media can interact for the benefit of society.
§ Chris Bryant
The hon. Gentleman makes a wise point. It is true that the relationship between the police and the media must be constant and trusting. I shall come on to the issue of newspapers' attempts, by payments to police officers, to gain information that they should not have, which is different from the right and proper process of enabling a good dialogue to take place between the police and local media. Indeed, often, background briefing of the media by the police is essential if the media are to play a proper role in enabling the police to do their job effectively. Sometimes, that goes wrong.
Privacy is an issue not only when someone is a victim of crime or tragedy, but also sometimes when they have had a great success, such as winning the lottery. That is another interesting area in which the Press Complaints Commission has acted, although, in the end, somewhat ambiguously.
From 1993 to 1995, there was a lengthy debate between the PCC, the Government, Camelot and the courts about whether it was right, first, for a newspaper to offer a reward for the name of someone who had won a multi-million pound lottery award, and secondly, to name such an individual, despite the fact that that person had sought anonymity. The PCC produced an interesting paper, but the issue still, in the end, relies on a hinge point on public interest in the PCC code of conduct.
Broadly speaking, the PCC and many people would argue that where there is a public interest it is all right to breach the anonymity that an individual who has just won the lottery might want to maintain. The difficulty arises over the question whether, while everyone is interested in who has won, that means that there is genuinely a public interest. Sometimes those two issues are conflated.
I have already said that the report was not at all about public figures' right, or lack of a right, to privacy. The report was about ordinary members of the public. That means that it was not about the right to privacy, although we reached a view on that, but primarily about the standards and methods used by broadcast and print media to tell news stories.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has already alluded to some of the issues, but one of the most difficult to address is that of the TV and radio scrums that appear outside people's houses. Leaving aside the fact that by recording the house, the crews are revealing that that is where a certain person lives, and that the mere revealing of someone's 500WH address is a breach of privacy, we must consider the intimidation that someone feels when they have five or 10 journalists sitting outside their house because they are the victim of a crime or something that has happened in their community.
The individual phone call. repeated three or four times, from a journalist saying that they are from such and-such a place arid asking for a piece of information can also cause trouble. Others have told of instances in which someone has phoned to say that they are ringing on behalf of the police, but it subsequently turns out that they are from a newspaper trying to gain information. Those are practices that every editor in the land would condemn but that many journalists, in private conversations, would own up to.
Those processes are wrong. The intimidation that individuals feel might be alleviated if they knew the process of phoning the Press Complaints Commission and demanding that the scrums desist. Indeed, such a process exists, and whenever it is initiated, it seems to work. However, it would be difficult for ordinary members of the public, who do not spend their time considering such issues, to go through that process.
Consequently, our suggestion that the PCC should make itself more readily known in national newspapers and magazines is important. There should be frequent adverts giving people the telephone number to ring if they have any problem and telling them that there is a way of preventing media scrums outside their house. Most people never think that it will happen to them, but if the information was published regularly, people might manage to get in touch when they needed to.
There is also the issue of how photographs can be deliberately chosen or manipulated. It is hard for an ordinary member of the public to see a photo that deliberately makes them look unhappy, fat, ugly or badly dressed. That is another point to consider when trying to change the standards in modern journalism, and it is especially important when the person is the victim rather than the perpetrator of a crime. One could perhaps understand that someone trying to portray someone as an ogre. for example Myra Hindley, would probably take and use the ogre photo, but many members of the public have found themselves abused by newspapers' deliberate use of unflattering photographs.
The use of private detectives and surveillance firms is also a problem. The PCC code of practice is relatively clear about what is permissible. Article 8 states:Journalists must not obtain or publish material obtained by using clandestine listening devices or by intercepting private telephone conversations.However, nowhere does the code say that journalists may not use private detectives and other third parties to engage in those activities, and that is one point that we want to be clarified in the code.
In response to the Committee's report and the specific question on banning payments to the police for information, the PCC said:The government's response to the Select Committee sets out in detail why this behaviour would be illegal. It is axiomatic that the Press Complaints Commission condemns lawbreaking. However, it would be for the Code Committee to consider whether it is necessary for the Code of Practice to duplicate the law. The Committee will consider this proposal at its next annual review of the Code, which is due to take place in early 2004.501WH Given that we are halfway through March, I wonder how early in 2004 that review will take place. I hope that we shall not lose sight of the issue, because such payments suborn police officers and often elicit information that not only should not be in the public domain but may be inaccurate. Such practices are wrong, and we should put a stop 10 them.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton, rightly said, Rebekah Wade was admirably straightforward in telling the Committee that her newspaper had paid police officers for information, and many editors said that we should take evidence of such practices to the Home Office. However, even though every senior police officer to whom I have spoken has told me that the problem is endemic in their force, the Home Office and the PCC have done remarkably little. Such practices are still a problem in our criminal justice system and in the press, and we must deal with them. I therefore hope that the Minister will say something specific about them and that the PCC will write to us fairly soon to tell us precisely what the code committee decides at its meeting in early 2004.
The Select Committee wants self-regulation to work, and among the other major issues that we considered were the nature of the commission and the code committee, and in particular their memberships. We asked one woman how she had become a member of the commission, and she said—this may sound patronising, but I think that this was accidental, because she seemed like a good woman and an eminent, possibly appropriate member of the PCC—that she had applied because its director, Guy Black, who had been a friend of hers for 18 years, had rung up to suggest that she apply. I am therefore glad that the PCC has taken on board our recommendation that it should have a much more open and transparent method of appointing people, and it is good to see that it has increased by one the number of its lay members.
Two issues remain with regard to the code committee, which produced a code of practice for newspapers. An ordinary member of the public who read a list of the committee's members would find it phenomenally difficult to think anything other than that the committee was incestuous. It consists of Les Hinton, from News International, who is the chairman; James Bishop of The Illustrated London News; Mike Gilson of The News in Portsmouth; Peter Wright, editor of The Mail on Sunday;Doug Melloy of the Rotherham and South Yorkshire Advertiser; Ian Murray of the Southern Daily Echo, Paul Potts of the Press Association; Derek Tucker of The Press and Journal; Neil Wallis of the News of the World; John Witherow of The Sunday Times; Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian; Neil Benson of Trinity Mirror and Ian Beales, who is the sole lay member and secretary to the committee. It is difficult to understand why the whole code committee consists of editors of newspapers. I understand why it is important to have journalists' input, because, as the PCC told us, they understand the industry and the organisations, but if there is to be a heightened sense of the PCC's value, and it is not simply to be judge and jury in its own case, the number of lay members on the code committee must increase.
§ Peter Bottomley
Writing the code is not the same as being the jury. It has always struck me that one of the stronger arguments for editors writing the code is that they are the people who are supposed to abide by it. The judgment afterwards is separate.
§ Chris Bryant
The hon. Gentleman seems to resile from my suggesting that the point was clever. The point that I am trying to make is that numerous times during the past few years, the commission has found several of the editors on the code committee guilty of breaches. It is therefore difficult to see that they are not both judge and jury. They are writing a code and refusing to include in it practices that other people might want to see in it, because they know that they will use them in the operation of their newspapers.
The Select Committee made two points about this issue. First, should press members of the code committee be barred from that committee if they have persistently offended against the code, on the basis of, say, "three strikes and you are out."? I am afraid that the PCC responded:This proposal would not in fact be practical.It then gave several reasons why it would not be practical. To my mind, its arguments were fallacious. The honest truth is that no other professional organisation in the world writes and adjudicates on its own code, and once it has adjudicated against itself and its members, allows them to remain to write and adjudicate on that code.
We must be robust with the PCC and say that the lay membership of the code committee should be increased. The code committee should not consist entirely of lay people, but some of its members should be lay people. Again, when we said that the code committee should be re-established with a significant minority of lay members, the PCC said:This proposal does not take account of the fact that there is already a significant lay input into the Code.For the life of me, I do not see how that happens. It certainly does not happen through any formal process, and I do not believe that there is an informal process, other than the Select Committee regularly making suggestions to it about how it should change the code.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD)
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's argument, but he fails to cite the second paragraph of the PCC response to that issue. As he rightly said, the PCC said that the proposal does not take account of the fact that there is already a significant lay input into the code, but it goes on to say:Moreover, the Code is ratified by the PCC itself which has a clear lay majority.That is crucial and was picked up by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). Surely it is the ratification of the code that is important. I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but he is making a mountain of this issue.
§ Chris Bryant
The code committee has a narrow lay majority, not a significant one, and the process is one of 503WH ratification. Statutory instruments pass through the House and, in theory, we ratify them. However, I am not aware of any statutory instrument ever having been amended by the House and I rather feel that the process is the same for the PCC. The code is written by editors and published with the approval of the chairman of the whole commission. I am not aware of anyone ever having sought to amend it.
§ Mr. Foster
I apologise for pursuing what the hon. Gentleman himself has said is a relatively small point. However, his example of statutory instruments is also fallacious. In fact, most members of a Committee that considers statutory instruments are Government Members, so in any analogous committee, there must be a minority of lay people.
§ Chris Bryant
The hon. Gentleman has made my point rather than his own, for which I thank him. My point is that whoever has the majority usually wins. In this case, those who write the code are not even in the majority, but are 100 per cent. of the committee, which consists of editors. I may be labouring this issue too much, because the real issue is whether the code is right and proper or whether it needs amendment, rather than the membership of the code committee. If the public are to have a greater sense of confidence in the work of the PCC, the PCC could do more to bring other members into the code committee as well as into the commission. I openly acknowledge that it has made moves in that direction as far as the commission is concerned.
In terms of the code of practice, I have already referred to the need to update article 8, and I also believe that the code should be updated to allow for significant recent technological changes, as was acknowledged in our report. However, my biggest query is about the way in which the public interest aspect of the code operates. I will briefly read it for the benefit of hon. Members:1. The public interest includes: i) Detecting or exposing crime or a serious misdemeanour, ii) Protecting public health and safety, iii) Preventing the public from being misled by some statement or action of an individual or organisation.I do not think that anybody would quarrel with any of that. The article continues:
That all seems reasonable, but the difficulty with a code such as this, which faces in two directions, is that it is all too easy simply to use the argument that because the public is interested in something there is a public interest in it. The public interest must be shown to be substantial if one is to breach the privacy of an ordinary member of the public. The line:
- "2. In any case where the public interest is invoked, the Press Complaints Commission will require a full explanation by the editor demonstrating how the public interest was served.
- 3. There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself. The Commission will therefore have regard to the extent to which material has, or is about to, become available to the public.
- 4. In cases involving children editors must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to over-ride the normally paramount interests of the child."There is a public interest in freedom of expression itself",is the point through which the horse and carriage is driven on every occasion in which these issues are disputed before the PCC.
504WH I have two final points, the first of which is the PCC clear preference not to adjudicate. Perhaps understandably, the PCC always prefers not to adjudicate, but to resolve. In most cases a resolution means that the complainant and the editor of the newspaper are brought together and an agreement is made. The difficulty is that because there are so few adjudications, one cannot precisely test what is happening in the industry. In the last three months of 2003—the last period for which figures are available—there were 886 complaints to the PCC. Only six of those were adjudicated on. In the three months before that there were 1,105 complaints and only eight were adjudicated on.
In other organisations there is a deliberate desire to adjudicate so that case law starts to develop and people understand what is acceptable in certain circumstances. I would prefer the FCC to adjudicate in more cases. I understand why many people do not want to go to adjudication. If the case involves privacy or inaccuracy, people do not want to go through lengthy complicated rows with a newspaper and they do not want to perpetuate the story and keep it running day after day and week after week, because that re-emphasises the original problem.
It remains a worry that, of 1,986 complaints made to the PCC in the last six months of 2003, only four were upheld. The PCC would say that that shows that people make vexatious claims.
§ Peter Bottomley
The hon. Gentleman is going a bit fast. The fact that some cases were determined does not mean that others were not accepted by the editors.
§ Chris Bryant
Well, it depends what accepted by the editor means. For instance, if a wholly inaccurate report of an event appears in a newspaper and someone complains and the newspaper editor agrees that the paper will carry a letter from the person on page 23 three weeks later, that is counted as a resolution. In both the two quarters to which I refer there are some 150 resolutions of that sort. It is difficult to know whether those resolutions are real in the sense that the claimant is properly satisfied. One could argue that if claimants were not satisfied, they would have pushed for more. However, I believe that there is so much pressure from the PCC to agree the resolution that has been accepted that it is difficult for the complainants to get the proper justice that they deserve.
That brings me to my final point, which is about adjudication. Once there has been an adjudication—in the few cases in which that occurs—and a correction is required, I am concerned about the due prominence that is given to that cot ruction when it is printed in the newspaper. Due prominence on television—on electronic programme guides for the BBC, for instance— means position No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 or No. 5. However, in a national newspaper, due prominence usually seems not to mean a taster on a front page, as we suggested in our report, nor even a significant-sized reply on the same page on which the original inaccurate report was made, but something tucked away on the page that is least regularly read. That therefore remains an injustice.
The PCC, in its reply to the Select Committee report, said that newspaper editors are fully aware of the fact that failure to print a correction with due prominence.
505WH might in itself be a breach of the code, and that therefore they could be committing a second breach. However, newspapers have no financial disincentive not to breach the code again and have little other incentive not to breach the code, because the penalties against them are so minor. I therefore believe that the PCC should take more proactive steps to ensure that the concept of due prominence is clear and readily understood by both sides. In my opinion, that means that if there is a two-inch headline on page 1 giving inaccurate information, there should be a two-inch headline on page 1 when the correction is made.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate and I am aware that the PCC has made significant progress, not least by virtue of the way in which it engaged with us and we engaged with it. However, there is still a substantial way for the PCC and the industry to go if we are to have the kind of press that we can all have confidence and pride in.
§ John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) on securing the debate and enabling this important matter to be discussed. I also congratulate him on the excellent way in which he chairs our Committee. He made his remarks today with the same eloquence and elegance to which we have become used.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, of all the reports that we have undertaken, this one attracted the most attention and, throughout our deliberations, caused something or a media scrum in itself. Many Select Committee proceedings on subjects of great seriousness and importance take place throughout the House in many Committee Rooms every day, but they are rarely subject to the level of attention that we received. At one point, I described it as being "carpet-bombed" by the press. It was interesting to observe the way in which different editors and different segments of the press chose to treat us during that process.
As the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton said, it is interesting to note that when the report was published, there was a much more measured response. That proved that Parliament and a Select Committee were able to undertake scrutiny in a measured way and to produce a measured report that merited a measured response from those who were its subject.
At the heart of our discussion is the question of the freedom of the press. I do not think any hon. Member would deny that that freedom is fundamental and an essential part of democracy—not only of ours, but of any real democracy. The freedom of the press to scrutinise, to investigate and to help hold public figures to account is undeniable, but that was not the subject of the report.
The freedom of the press, however vital it is to democracy, should be like all great freedoms: it should not be unfettered. Balanced against that freedom is another freedom—that of the individual to enjoy privacy and to be free from undue intrusion. We are talking about the ordinary citizen, not those who have put themselves forward for public office or those who seek a place on the public stage, on the sports field, in the 506WH cinema or wherever. We are talking about those who live normal, ordinary lives and who do not seek attention. In most of the cases that we considered, the people concerned had done nothing wrong. They were not involved in crimes, but were merely caught up in events. That is what seemed to cause so much distress.
I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley). He said that it was extremely important that the press should be able to dig dirt, and I utterly agree with him. He went on to say that there would be casualties. However, I parted company with him when he said that we should accept those casualties and anticipate some collateral damage if we are to maintain those freedoms. We tried to convey in the report what our investigations had shown—that the damage and casualties are more than occasional and that they are avoidable. Indeed, that kind of collateral damage is unnecessary. As I said, I am not talking about public figures. We who enter into public life take our chances and most of us have some knowledge, experience or training in dealing with the press and do our best.
I shall mention only one case, which arose subsequent to the completion of our report. I shall not mention the name of the constituent concerned, because he does not want publicity. However, he has been forced into the public eye, which is why I am taking up his complaint with the PCC. His original complaint was not satisfactorily resolved. He and his wife were unable to have children. They decided on fertility treatment, and embryos from another source were fertilised by him. Unfortunately, before anything further could happen, he and his wife divorced and she went to live in another part of the country.
A couple of years later, because the law states that embryos cannot be used if a couple have split up, those embryos were scheduled for destruction. There is nothing incorrect or wrong in that, but my constituent's wife has been campaigning against it. Because she is infertile, she is campaigning for those embryos to remain available to her so that she can have children at a later stage. As a result of that, another hon. Member—whom I shall not mention because it would identify the couple—began a campaign on behalf of the wife. That became known to the press.
My constituent was tracked down by the press and doorstepped. One press photograph shows him standing at the door with the son that he had by his new partner—a relationship that had started in the intervening time. He told me that the picture was taken by a journalist hiding in a car and using a telephoto lens, while another journalist knocked on the door asking him if he was who he was. He never at any time consented to the photograph being taken. That is the essential complaint that I am taking up.
The sad consequence, two years after those photographs were taken, was that my constituent's new partner found the situation so stressful that she left him and took the child with her. He is now £60,000 poorer because of the legal process that he went through to try to recover the child and deal with his circumstances. That is wholly unacceptable collateral damage for the sake of a few more copies of newspapers circulated for a few pence. That is why our report was about achieving the important balance between the freedom of the press and the freedom of the individual.
507WH I reiterate what a number of members of the Committee have said, which is that we are pleased by the PCC's response and the way in which it dealt with many points that we raised. I must mention one, because our excellent Clerk brought it to my attention. Paragraph 66 in our report highlights the fact that we had suggested that an audit committee might be put in place so that the PCC could audit its own work, as plcs do as part of normal corporate governance. I may even have made that suggestion myself. I notice that the PCC's response in paragraph 12 took that on board and agreed to do it—so one of our suggestions has come to pass.
There are items in our suggestions that the PCC should take on board but has not. One of them is that journalists should be enabled by the code to refuse an assignment on the grounds that it breaches the code. The PCC responded that it was a matter not for the commission but for the editor and employer. We heard evidence that some journalists would refuse assignments if they felt that they would be backed up. The PCC could easily do that, which would give it more teeth and help redress the balance.
§ Chris Bryant
On that point, it seems that one difficulty is that so many journalists are now on very short-term contracts and their security of tenure is minimal. For those people, the thought of saying to an editor, "I'm sorry-I can't take part in that," is almost unthinkable. Is there is a way of trying to ensure greater continuity of contracts in the newspaper industry?
§ John Thurso
The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point. It may be that by insisting that the code allows that, it is more cosmetic than real. However, much of what we are dealing with is about perception and message. The debate is about moving that perception and the message to editors, and the line lies slightly further across than they would like.
As the hon. Member for Rhondda said, the balance is between the article that is written, which may be incorrect or require an apology or correction, and the actual correction or apology that is published. One is in 32-point bold type on the front page and the other is in 10-point Times New Roman, hidden away under the weather, so there is an imbalance. We public figures have the ability to redress the balance. We can say things that are privileged and defend ourselves. The private individual caught up in an event does not have that ability. I firmly believe that we still have a way to go to get the balance right.
In that spirit, we approached the question of a privacy law. I hope that I am right in saying that if one took a straw poll at the beginning of our inquiry, the majority of members—I would like to say all members, but I am not sure that that is accurate—had a reticence about recommending a privacy law. The vast majority came to the inquiry with the view that that was not where we would end up. Therefore, the fact that we made our recommendation was as a result of the process, and was not a preconception that we had when we started.
I was passed a note at the beginning of this debate from my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), which says, "If you speak in favour of privacy law, 508WH please say you're on your own and I'll be rapping your knuckles, cos it's not party policy." I look forward to that rhetorical flagellation in due course.
As the Select Committee took and considered evidence, it became clear that the legal position is very uncertain. Our argument should not be misunderstood: it is not that there must be a privacy law because the press are bad and must be controlled. It is that the legal position has become unclear and must be clarified, and Parliament must undertake that role. It is probably best put in paragraph 109, where we referred to what Mr. Justice Lindsay said:The recent judgment in Peck v. United Kingdom in the ECHR … shows that in certain circumstances where the law of confidence did not operate our domestic law has already been held to be inadequate. That inadequacy will have to made good and if Parliament does not step in then the Courts will be obliged to.That is the real crux of our recommendation and why, on balance, we firmly recommend that the Government reconsider their position. We are asking the Government to introduce legislative proposals to clarify the protection that individuals can expect from unwarranted intrusion. We are not arguing for any draconian privacy law, but simply for clarifications in the law and reasonable protection for civilians in the media that we all enjoy so much.
Above all, our report, and the process that it went through, showed that a Select Committee undertaking a difficult inquiry in the face of some quite public opposition, was able to produce a measured report to which those at whom it was aimed were able to respond well. The movement in and the evolution of the PCC is in no way different from the conclusions of this Select Committee, and its predecessors, which have been leading it along the right path.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD)
I hope that there will be an opportunity to discuss the establishment of a new PCC—not, as in this case, the Press Complaints Commission, but the Privilege Complaints Commission. I should point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), whose speech I thoroughly enjoyed, that he managed very cleverly to avoid the rapping of his knuckles by pointing out at the end of his speech that the Committee had not after all proposed a full-blown privacy law, but was merely asking the Government to consider the issue. I have to say that that is not entirely how I read the Committee's report, but if that is the interpretation that he wants to put on it, he has got himself out of the knuckle-rapping that he was otherwise owed.
§ Chris Bryant
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a Liberal Democrat would use sophistry to get out of a difficult position in politics?
§ Mr. Foster
The Liberal Democrats use a lot of methods to get themselves out of difficult positions, but I am delighted to say, as was admirably demonstrated by my hon. Friend, that we are consistent in what we say on these issues.
I begin more seriously by saying that I genuinely welcome the timely report from the Select Committee. I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Select 509WH Committee on their work on it. I was going to describe the Chairman as "colourful", but for part of our deliberations we were joined by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), who showed that there is a rivalry among members of the Committee for that appellation.
I welcome the report and the helpful and constructive responses of the Government and the PCC. The report is timely, not least because, as it says, the current situation is one of uncertainty. As many right hon. and hon. Members have said, it will always be a difficult balancing act between two competing issues, the first of which is freedom of expression for the media, which is vital in a free and democratic society. If anyone doubts how important that is, they have only to look at two countries: Zimbabwe, with its growing move to totalitarianism and the impact that it is having on the freedom of the press and its restrict ions on journalists and newspapers; and Iraq, which ha, moved away from the tyranny of dictatorship, and is witnessing the burgeoning of a free press.
It is crucial in a democratic society for the media to have freedom of expression. I say in passing, as I have referred to the media and not just to the press, that it is a pity that in response to the Hutton inquiry leading members of the BBC suggested that the corporation should not be involved in breaking news stories. That seems to mean that there will be less investigative journalism from the BBC, which would be a retrograde step, for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and others.
The second issue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and others said, is the fact that it is crucial to respect individuals' private lives and get the balance right. However, as the report acknowledges, there are already laws relating to both issues, including, most recently, data protection and human rights legislation.
I was almost overwhelmed by the list of relevant legislation quoted in paragraph 100 by one of the Committee's witnesses, Mr. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail and editor-in-chief of Associated Newspapers. He wrote:The press in this country works under some of the most stringent and powerful laws of any western democracy. The libel laws, contempt of court, the provisions at the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act, the Children Acts, the Law of Confidence, the body of law restricting the reporting of certain cases in court, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Copyright laws, the Data Protection Act, the Human Rights Act, the Sexual Offences Act, the Representation of the People Act, the Access to Justice Act, and other numerous restrictive laws already add up to a huge body of legal controls.In view of that long list, it would be tempting, for that reason alone, to support the Government's opposition to the Committee's recommendations in respect of the possible establishment of a new privacy law, but I support the Government's argument for rejecting that proposal, as set out in paragraph's 2.3 to 2.6 of their response. They are right to say that a privacy law is, certainly currently, unnecessary and undesirable. The Government go on to say, and I agree with them, that theweighing of competing rights in individual cases is the quintessential task of the courts, not of Government, or Parliament.510WH Saying that does not mean that I believe that there are no other areas where further legislation or amendments to existing legislation should be considered-not necessarily areas covered by the report. Nevertheless, I remain to be convinced that we yet have adequate legislation on physical intrusion or libel. We currently have unpredictable awards and too many legitimate cases that go unheard.
In spite of what I have said, I believe that the Government are right in their firm rejection of the proposals for a new privacy law. I also support other aspects of the Government's response to the Committee's report. However, some of their responses are odd, to say the least; some seem inconsistent with the approach that they have adopted; and, in some, they have simply got things wrong.
Other hon. Members have dwelt on positive aspects of the response, and it was right that they should do so. Rather than repeat what others have said, including the Chairman of the Select Committee—who pointed out how the PCC has adopted, or at least accepted for future adoption, many of the recommendations—I shall spend a few minutes pointing out some of the inconsistencies in the response received by the Committee.
I happen to agree with the PCC's outright rejection of a league table for offenders against its code. but I am surprised that the Government, who are usually a huge promoter of league tables, as the Minister would be first to acknowledge, have gone silent on the issue. It would be useful to hear her view, and the Government's, on that proposal, which, as I have said, I do not support.
§ Mr. Foster
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the PCC's response to the question, which I am sure he has already read thoroughly, in which it points out the possibility of inaccuracy and misinformation, leading to great unfairness. I do not know the hon. Gentleman's position on school league tables, but I am sure he would acknowledge that although those have been developed, modified, codified and added to for some years, many people still believe them to be misleading and a cause of problems.
§ Chris Bryant
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that readers of The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph or The Times might want to know fairly regularly—annually—whether their newspaper was constantly being told off by the PCC? Would they not like to know whether the PCC believed that the information regularly being put before readers was likely to be true and accurate or in breach of the code?.
To answer the hon. Gentleman's question, I am in favour of intelligent league tables.
§ Mr. Foster
Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman can convince me that there is a way in which we can produce intelligent league tables I may change my mind. My answer to his legitimate question is that I do want to know about the newspapers that I read and the accuracy of their reporting, which is why I agree with the Select Committee report about the prominence that must be given in any newspaper to an adjudication against it. That is a far better approach than a potentially spurious and inaccurate league table.
511WH As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, the Committee's report gives its own version of a league table, on page 22. I suspect that on analysing some of the data, we may begin to disagree about whether the figures are correct.
The Government, while rightly willing to give their views on many matters dealt with in the report that are outwith their control, are strangely silent on some that are within their control—in particular some of the recommendations. For example, the Committee recommends, sensibly in my view, that it should be possible during an Ofcom hearing about a complaint against a broadcaster for the complainant to be allowed to make a full recording of the proceedings. I find it odd that that issue is missed, given the large number of issues that the Government touch and comment on.
One of the issues is the Committee's proposal for the PCC to establish a twin-track procedure. I may have misunderstood the Committee's intention, but when I read the Government's and the PCC's responses, I think that on both occasions they have totally misunderstood what it proposes. As I understand it, and I would be grateful for clarification from the Chairman if I have got it wrong, the Committee is proposing that on some occasions complainants will not wish to go through a form of adjudication procedure but will simply want the PCC to determine their case, whether they are right or wrong. They do not want a mediation stage, but want to go straight on and to have a decision made. Both the PCC and the Government have completely missed what seems to be a very sensible recommendation. It would be useful to have a response from the Minister.
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) rightly touched on the issue of illegal payments to policemen. That is an issue of which I have personal experience. A few years ago, I was involved as someone who was running barefoot down the street chasing an armed mugger. I knew that I was involved in that; the person who was mugged knew that she was involved; the armed mugger knew that he was involved. However, the only other people who knew about it in the middle of the night were the police. I found it strange. therefore, that within a few hours of the incident I received a large number of phone calls from journalists. One wonders how they got that information.
Nevertheless, I believe that the Government's response deals with the issue with some complacency, as the hon. Member for Rhondda says. It is particularly interesting that after the report was produced, the Government made reference to the issue in rather a strange way by drawing attention to a Home Office report. However, they did not actually quote the crucial section of that report, which states:Some PSU staff reported problems with officers leaking information to journalists, particularly in relation to high profile cases. In a number of examples discussed, sensitive operational police information emerged in the media, which directly implicated police sources. In this regard, one investigator remarked that his force was "like the Titanic, it's got so many holes". PSU staff suggested that this tended to involve payment of police staff by journalists.That is in a report published only a few months ago. It is a serious issue; the practice is of course illegal. That does not alter the fact that, as the Committee 512WH recommends, it should be incorporated within the code and given as much prominence as possible. I certainly share the Committee's view that the confusion over the issue needs to be resolved.
The Government's responses are generally welcome, and I have touched only on those with which I have problems. The FCC's response has been equally welcome. It has already adopted or agreed to adopt in the future a large number of the Committee's recommendations. I welcome that. Nevertheless, I find some of its responses somewhat confusing. For example, it suggests that there is no evidence that journalists are asked to undertake assignments that would breach the code in the absence of a public interest. As we have already heard, we welcome the steps that have been taken to make that part of the employment contract and so on. However, the evidence given to the Committee, by the National Union of Journalists, for instance, contradicted the way in which the PCC reports the situation.
The Chairman of the Committee raised, quite rightly, the issue of the visibility and prominence of adjudications. The PCC, in saying that it accepts that there needs to be due prominence but not accepting the notion of a front-page reference, suggests that there have been no complaints about prominence, yet the thrust of the evidence given to the Committee, certainly as I read it, expressed a different view.
Those are some of the matters on which I have problems with the responses that have been offered, but generally I welcome the report and the thrust of the responses from the Government and the PCC. I recognise what the report says: progress has been made, but from a very low base. That said, the Committee's recommendations provide a real opportunity to make progress on the issues and improve the situation still further and to do sc in large measure through the right approach—an improved self-regulatory system.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con)
I welcome the opportunity to follow two Liberal contributors, who merely go to prove the old adage that the one thing we can expect from the Liberal party is consistent inconsistency.
Like most other contributors to the debate, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), not only on chairing his second inquiry into this subject, but on expecting to be here in 20 years' time, by which time he will have chaired at least another two inquiries. I hope that no one will take it the wrong way or think that I am making an announcement if I say that I doubt whether I shall be here in 20 years' time. I admire his persistence.
This has been an interesting debate on an interesting report, for which there was a large measure of support on both sides of the Chamber. Most of the points that needed to be made have probably already been raised, so I shall try not to take up too much time, but I hope that I will be able to cover a number of issues that the right hon. Gentleman raised.
I think that all hon. Members who contributed raised the issue of a privacy law, which is the key to the report and the Government's response—indeed, the report has its origins in the demand for such a law. The interesting 513WH point is that practically all hon. Members talked about a privacy law not in terms of people in the public eye, such as us, but in terms of people who are not and the difficulties that they have when faced with the media scrum in its various manifestations. We all agree about what an unpleasant experience that can be. Even those of us who have experienced it in only a minor way know that it is difficult to handle.
My primary concern is about what could easily happen with a law that was designed to protect such people. In any case, it would be extraordinarily hard, even for our expert parliamentary draftsmen, to draw up a law that was aimed entirely at people who did not have such experience. That is perhaps the basic difficulty that we all have with the introduction of a privacy law. In addition, I do not think that their right to free speech is any more curbed than ours, although we have to recognise article 8 of the European convention on human rights—the right to privacy—which is enshrined in our own human rights legislation. The issue creates a tension. One suspects that that will probably be resolved through the courts rather than in Westminster, and test cases in the courts may indeed be the more effective way to resolve it.
§ Chris Bryant
That point strikes at the heart of the debate, and the hon. Lady's comments are right and wise. The biggest difficulty is the lack of a sharp divide between someone who is in public life and someone who is not. Is an ordinary schoolteacher in public life? It is hard to draw the distinction. The difficulty that we faced as a Committee was that the people furthest from being in public life, who fall into the public gaze by virtue of an accident or a tragedy, are often those who have least recourse to law because they have the fewest financial resources. That is the injustice.
§ Mrs. Lait
I have great sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's point and all of us have great sympathy with people who find themselves in such a situation. Another complication is that many people when faced with a microphone react by thinking that they are adding to the sum total of human knowledge and then find themselves facing a media intrusion that they cannot cope with. That is not an improbable situation and it makes the law even more difficult to draft, leaving aside any attempt to translate it to cover people in public life. Even with the best legal training in the world, I would not want to be involved in trying to draft a privacy law to ensure that the people who are least capable of dealing with a media serum do not have to face it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) mentioned Soham and we saw the terrible pressure that everyone came under there. We can all probably quote other such instances. The Damilola Taylor case is one, where there were terrible problems with the witness who was code-named Bromley after the borough. I represent part of that borough and the family police liaison committee did a first-class job in insulating the people who had a crucial part to play in the case from media intrusion. I do not know the details of the Soham case—my hon. Friend will know more—but one suspects that the experience of liaison officers is increasing so that there is much greater protection for people who are caught up in such appalling circumstances.
514WH That protection may reinforce the argument for the continuation of self-regulation, which I support, but I must also welcome the changes that have been introduced both before and since Sir Christopher Meyer took over as chairman of the PCC. He is obviously having a positive input into its future development in response to the pressures that emerge from time to time through the public reaction to various events.
I welcome the fact that the Committee will see Sir Christopher on a regular basis. I hope that its members have a date in the diary, knowing how difficult it is for meetings to be set up. I noticed that last year, he promised to meet them in May so if a meeting has not been organised, I would get the diaries out fairly soon. I welcome also the positive response of many hon. Members to how he has updated the PCC following the various recommendations that were made to it.
Obviously, the PCC and press have to address some of the changes themselves, which is one positive side of self-regulation, albeit one that is more difficult for the industry to deal with. If the media are to secure the public confidence that they need to maintain self-regulation, they must stay ahead of the public, rather than follow them. It is easy for the press to get into a bunker and say, "Thus far and no further," when, because of the development of new technology, for instance, they do not update the code of conduct for journalists, or whatever the pressure may be. One consequence of today's debate may be an improvement in the way newspapers acknowledge that they have made a mistake.
About 20 years ago I worked in television news and regularly used a cuttings library. Even then. one was conscious that wrong facts had, in the jargon, got into the ether and were repeated time after time. Although new cuttings may be annotated, when one reads some stories, one wonders whether anybody has gone back to the old files to annotate and update them. That would be a serious piece of research work, which the PCC could well consider funding. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) explored all those issues in some detail and I commend him on his interest.
Fundamentally, however, I think that we are all most concerned about the potential difficulties with a privacy law. In a democracy, we need to balance free speech with privacy. However, we must do so in such as way that our media are not looked on in the same way that, for instance, the French media are. Many people in public life in France enjoy a charmed life, but details often emerge only years after their death. We need to ensure that our press and our broadcasters retain the public's respect and that what they say is considered to be as close to the truth as possible: the truth being a moveable, not an absolute. Interestingly, television, which is one of the most intrusive forms of communication, is the medium that the British public trust most, not the press. When one learns of the more devious means that journalists use to get information, however, one can perhaps understand their difficulties.
Again, I commend the Select Committee on the hard work that it has put into the report. Whenever I say that I agree with the Government, I always remember the fallout from the Child Support Agency. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) and I both agree with the Government, which sends a tremor down my spine. However, I believe that self-regulation is absolutely the 515WH best way forward for the press. I hope that Sir Christopher Meyer and his colleagues reform and update the PCC, so that not only does it meet the difficulties that people see in its format, but self-regulation continues and we manage to maintain our respect for the individual and free speech.
§ The Minister for the Arts(Estelle Morris)
I join all those who have spoken in thanking the Select Committee, in particular the Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), for the report. The report is timely and should become an annual event—I shall refer to that later, when I reply to the debate on privacy.
The issue is incredibly difficult, and no Select Committee, democracy or Parliament will or should say, "It's done". We should never feel sure that the press does everything that the public expects and that we can rest on our laurels. That is not the nature of the press, of democracy or of the relationship between the two. My right hon. Friend's opening comments, in which he said that much has improved since 1992 but that there are still areas of concern and much needs to be done—I hope that I do not sound too much like the last Labour manifesto—are probably right and I suspect that that will always be the case.
The issue is a moveable feast in that demands and reflections will change in the light of new events and public concerns. If we solve one set of problems, the public will bring another set of issues to our attention in the next five years. If the Select Committee is setting out an ongoing relationship with the PCC that involves monitoring and reporting back to the House, I welcome that. Given that the House has decided on a self-regulatory rather than a statutory system, the relationship between the Select Committee and the PCC is even more essential.
I want to do three things: first, reflect on the nature of the press; secondly, respond to some of the long list of concerns of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster); and thirdly, reflect on the privacy issue. Before that, I want to join other hon. and right hon. Members in emphasising the importance of the press in our democracy and parliamentary life. Every week we, as a nation, read or glance through 162 million newspapers—that is a heck of a lot of printed words and pictures to look at. Although every one of the 3,000 or so complaints must be investigated and everything that is wrong must be remedied, we should point out that on the whole the press serves us well. We are discussing what can be done about instances in which we have concerns.
As constituency MPs and national parliamentarians, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, we know the role that the press can play in unearthing things that go wrong, from thalidomide onwards, and we are aware of the issues and scams, for example in areas of consumer choice, that the press has given attention to. We know what delving by the press can do for our democracy and our constituents and we use that for our good when it serves us. However, we see the consequences of individuals suffering when that goes 516WH wrong and the press goes too far. We have been talking about the effect on ordinary individuals rather than those who choose to put their lives in the public domain.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) gave an excellent example in which the good and bad aspects of press delving came into conflict when she mentioned the case of Damilola Taylor. I will mention the case of Stephen Lawrence. In the case of Damilola Taylor, one could argue that the press sometimes went too far. However, had it not been for the prominence given by the press to the case of a young lad who was stabbed to death on a rough estate in Peckham, government might not have been able to respond. We certainly would not have had a national debate about the nature of a society in which a lad behaving himself on the way home from school can come to that end. In the case of Stephen Lawrence, one could argue that his friends and family experienced too much press intrusion at a time of grief. However, the case has led to the rewriting of the way that we do business, and race relations and the way in which the press, politicians and the police act.
§ Peter Bottomley
This is not the time to go into detail on the Stephen Lawrence case—I regret to say that I am an expert on it—but the key point is that if the press had taken the killing of a teenager in Eltham as seriously as they had taken the murder of a white woman in Luton, more evidence might have come forward; that again would have been a good interaction between the media and the police in solving a crime.
§ Estelle Morris
I had forgotten entirely the hon. Gentleman's involvement in what, for him, was a constituency issue. I pay tribute to the strength with which he has pursued that case. Interestingly, he has proved my point: his example shows that if the press had done that, national attention would have been focused on the case. I mention that only because it is so difficult to place the dividing line. It is not clear cut.
We heard that people can sometimes be public figures and sometimes not. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda—or it might have been my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton; I cannot remember—said that even public figures have the right to a private life. We politicians have always known that we need some private time. We shall never stop discussing the question; all that we can seek to do is to remedy existing errors.
I am sure that other hon. Members will have found it to be so, but when constituents visit my advice bureau to ask me to do something, they sometimes seem to have great confidence in the local press. Indeed, the local press is different from the national press in that respect. If I have to say how difficult it might be to resolve a case, they put their hands up and say, "I'll go to the Evening Mail." They speak as if the local papers can do what politicians cannot do—what none of the rest of the system can do. The public have the strange point of view that although they o lien bemoan the press, they often look to it to remedy wrongs. Therein lies the entire relationship between politicians, the public and the press. When the press do it well, when they get it right. they are the best friends that one could have, and the best buttress of democracy. However, when they get it wrong, the consequences are dire.
517WH Part of the problem is the 24-hour news service. Society sometimes pays the price of wanting and expecting such a service. The media scrums are the result of needing another angle on a story, of needing one more bit of information, one more clip for a programme. The need sometimes becomes so great that it pushes the media into acting wrongly and in ways that might be against the code. That, however, is the society in which we live, and we cannot turn it back.
One of the difficulties that I find as a Minister is that it is a roundabout sort of argument. Having gone for a system of self-regulation for the press, it is easy for the Government—but not acceptable, and perhaps that underlies some of the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton about the Government's response to the report—to say, "If it's self-regulatory, it's nothing to do with us." The Government did not intend that to be read into our response. Sometimes, however, it is difficult for the Government to find the right words to express our legitimate hopes and aspirations for press coverage that defends democracy and the public, while acknowledging that the media are self-regulatory. Ministers do not always have the freedom to say what they might say as Back Benchers. What I might have said as a Back Bencher will have to stay in my mind on this occasion.
The strongest complaint made by my right hon. Friend was against the tone of the Government's response, but finding the right words—words that still give the clear message to the press and the public that we accept self-regulation—means that we sometimes have to accept behaviour that we might not tolerate without self-regulation. Sometimes we do not get it right, and we will reflect on that; we shall try to do better for the next report.
The media scrum thing is awful and ought not to happen to ordinary people—it is pretty awful when it happens to anyone. We should not forget that we are ordinary people as well as politicians. I think that we have all experienced how difficult that can be. There has been a preliminary meeting on this issue between the PCC and Ofcom, and more meetings are to follow. Whatever the report says, I would welcome any agreement under which that would not happen to ordinary people, but the media would be able to gather the information that they need to serve democracy and to inform the public. I welcome the fact that that meeting has taken place, and hope that it will come to something.
I find myself in some difficulty over the issue of payments to the police. Of course that practice is wrong, and of course it goes on. I have reread the Government's response. I may get into terrible trouble for saying this, but perhaps it is not quite as clear as it should be on the fact that the practice does go on and that it ought not to. I suspect that anyone who says that they have never heard of that going on, especially in the press, does not have their eyes as open as they should. It is against the law, and nobody—including editors, politicians, people at the Home Office or any other people who have been referred to—is saying that it should be acceptable. However, there is an issue over whether it should be put into the code. Should it be repeated or is it sufficient to rely on the fact that it is already in the law? I do not know whether it would add more weight to repeat it in 518WH the code. It is a matter of implementation, not of what is in the law and what is not. It is a matter of the police taking action where they know that there are offenders.
§ Chris Bryant
Lots of people keep saying that it is illegal, and we all presume that it is, but nobody is very good at specifying the law under which it is an offence. That is why I wonder whether there is not still some room for legislation on this matter.
§ Estelle Morris
Luckily, I have the relevant page open, so I can answer that question, although the answer will be fairly technical—or perhaps I cannot, after all.
Yes, I can. There are several laws that make it an offence for police officers to receive payments for information, including the Prevention of Corruption Acts, the Data Protection Act 1998 and common-law provisions on misconduct in public office. A police officer receiving payments would also be subject to disciplinary proceedings under the codes of conduct. The issue is not whether the law is there, but whether there is a will to implement it.
§ Chris Bryant
The point is that it is illegal for a police officer to receive money, but it is not illegal to offer money to a police officer.
§ Estelle Morris
I am not a lawyer, but I am not sure how a law could be framed under which one cannot offer money to a police officer. For example, if an officer's mum wants to give him a birthday present, she might give him a fiver. I am not sure how that would diminish anything. There is a legal framework that police officers can use to take action. To give is to receive. The receiving of money can be dealt with. What I gathered from the Select Committee was that payments were being made and accepted. The message that I am trying to put across is that, if that happens, action should be taken. The problem then becomes one of implementation.
§ Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton) (Con)
We wrote our report with the evidence of a national editor in mind: she brazenly said that money had been passed to the police. Since then, a Home Office report and plenty of newspaper accounts have said that that practice still goes on. I am not sure whether it needs to be legislated on, because it is already in law, but surely the fact that it is against the law should be backed up and strengthened in the code, so that nobody can push it aside or say that it does not matter. It would be much more helpful if it was strengthened in the code. According to the commission, however, it is up to the code committee to consider whether it is necessary for the code to duplicate the law.
§ Estelle Morris
I would have no problem if it were repeated in the code. The code is reviewed annually, although it has not yet been reviewed this year. This is a little like the parliamentary year, in that we are getting into March and beyond. I would have no problem with that, but the code is a matter for the code committee, and it is for the PCC to ratify it. My concern is that it is no good repeating it in the code if the code is not enforced. The point that I was trying to make was that everyone knows that it should not happen, but we know 519WH that it does happen, and we look to those with the responsibility for ensuring that the law is enforced. The matter is of concern, and no doubt the Committee will reconsider it in another report.
I agree with the comments made about the prominence given to corrections. It is not for the Government to tell editors what the font size should be when corrections are printed, and it would be silly to do so. I simply acknowledge the frustration felt by people when the correction is not as prominent as the error was. I have no doubt that editors and PCC members who read the record of the debate will reflect on the comments made by members of the Committee.
The hon. Member for Bath talked about league tables. The key point is that the information is there and can be gathered together. There is a league table in the Select Committee report, which proves the case. For many years, he and I have argued over a particular league table—the school performance tables—with which we are both familiar, and to which he may have been referring. The position is the same in this case. The requirement is that data be published, so the data are available. School performance information gets into a league table because someone chooses to put it there. The press choose to convert it into a performance table. It would not happen if the newspapers did not choose to publish school examination results as a performance table, because the Government do not publish performance tables.
Exactly the same situation obtains in this case. The information exists, but the press have not chosen to put it into a performance table. The Government will not make them do so, because they do not make them do that with education results. The Select Committee chose to do that. I do not believe that it had any information when it gathered the data. The key point to make is that the data exist. One newspaper chooses not to publish the data, while another one does. It is an editorial decision. It is not for the Government to decide. I would be concerned, however, if the data did not exist. As it is, however, I am not sure whether there is a strong case to be made.
§ Mr. Foster
Yes, I was referring to the league table that the Minister mentioned. I entirely accept her point about how they are compiled and who compiles them. However, we are debating a specific recommendation made by the Select Committee that the PCC should publish league tables showing how publications have fared in a particular year. It would be helpful if the Government responded clearly on that issue. However, since the Minister said that it can so easily be done and referred to the example on page 22 of the Select Committee report, which I mentioned earlier, will she tell me whether she believes that this league table is helpful where, for example, it combines upheld or partly upheld adjudications, without indicating how much of the adjudication was upheld or how serious the matter was? I find the information totally unhelpful and misleading. What does she believe?
§ Estelle Morris
The hon. Gentleman makes my point: we get into difficulties of definition the minute we start to talk about performance tables. We have always had 520WH this problem. He and I both know that other league tables with which we are familiar have been amended and adjusted for years. and he still does not believe that they should be published. The Government are not going to say that a league table should be published. The Select Committee made the recommendation, but the PCC said that it would not do it. The Government should not comment on whether it should. It is a difficult area. I do not want the public to think that the Government have said that such a league table should be published. Given that we do not do so in relation to statutory services such as tests for 11-year-olds, we will certainly not do so on non-statutory services such as the PCC. Whether the Government express a firm opinion on the matter does not add to the debate.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Bath on the twin-track approach and agree with the PCC's response. Speed is of the essence, and one of the good things about the PCC process is that it deals with cases much more rapidly than most tribunal cases, and other cases that have a legal underpinning, are dealt with. It is important that that speed be retained.
In other areas of our lives in which there is conflict between an organised body and the public, we try to inject mediation into that conflict, whereas in this instance the suggestion is that it should be taken out. I do not see a problem in trying to resolve such complaints without having recourse to a formal process. When a conflict between officialdom and the individual becomes tied up in quasi-legal procedures, and lawyers become involved, there is a danger that it will take much longer and that nine, 10 or 11 months after the process has started, people will say, "If only we could have sat you down in the same room to begin with, we could have solved the problem at that stage." One of the things that I like about the PCC procedure is that there is an obligation to see whether the situation can be resolved with mediation at an early stage. I believe that to be in the interests of "ordinary people", who are not legal people or politicians. Ordinary people want satisfaction, not a big, convoluted case.
I am told that Ofcom is reviewing the codes and procedures, and that the recording of procedures has not been ruled out. That is a matter for Ofcom rather than the Government, but it is still early in the new year as far as that process is concerned. No doubt, as summer approaches, Ofcom will proceed with that.
I turn now to the last but most vital issue: whether there should be a privacy law. In my opening remarks, I commented on the difficulty related to that matter, and I find myself in agreement with the hon. Members for Bath and for Beckenham, but not with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton—perhaps on this occasion all Front-Bench spokespeople are finding themselves with unusual bedfellows.
The key—and legitimate—question to ask is whether a privacy law would make a real difference. That is a legitimate question about which to have a debate, but I am not persuaded, and the Government are not persuaded, that such a law would make a difference. It would not make the judgment any easier. I cannot think of a law that could define all the difficulties that we have discussed—what is public and private, what is in the public interest, when someone is a public figure and when they are a private figure, and whether there is a 521WH crime involved—and that would give people privacy, and make it easier for the press to make judgments in a way that does not overstep the mark, and that would do that better than the present legislation. We could end up in a mess.
We could end up giving the impression that Parliament seeks to undermine the freedom of the press. I am told also that it would be the first time in 400 years that there was that statutory underpinning of the way in which the press behave. I think that we must continue with the laws as at present—the hon. Member for Bath listed those laws—and use them as guidance. The Human Rights Act 1998 has been an incredible additional law under which people can choose to take cases, but a privacy law would not be the way forward, for two reasons. Such a law would step across the boundary between a free press and public interest, and it would be a huge step for very little extra.
522WH I should like to conclude by paying tribute again to the Select Committee. As democratically elected politicians, there can be no greater job that we can do, both for our profession and for the public, than ensuring that our press remains free and responsible. Our problem, because of the nature of our position, is that that relationship is sometimes quite difficult to define. It is entirely proper, from time to time, that the Select Committee consider the issue and give Parliament the opportunity to debate it. I welcome this debate. Like the hon. Member for Beckenham, I suppose that I shall not be here to respond to a debate on the same subject in 20 years' time, but I wish my right hon. Friend and the members of his Committee well, and thank them for ensuring that we shall have an opportunity to respond to any future report.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Five o'clock.