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Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot) : How nice it is to see the House of Commons so full on a Friday, and how much nicer to see so many members of the press perched in the Press Gallery. I am even told that sketch writers--those aristocrats of my profession--have forgone the delights of spending the weekend in great houses to continue their duties here today.
The British tabloid newspaper is as British as a football hooligan, and just as welcome. The leaders of the pack are Rupert Murdoch's the Sun and News of the World, with The Star bringing up the rear. In 1939, I was evacuated to my uncle's cottage in darkest Shropshire, because we believed that the Luftwaffe had no idea where Craiven Arms was. The cottage was all lit by oil lamps, and it had a lavatory at the bottom of the garden. Inside the loo, the News of the World was cut into six-inch squares, hanging from a piece of string. All those sad, fallen vicars. Since then, due to increased living standards--due in part to the combination of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer--I no longer make use of the News of the World in quite the same way.
I suppose that the Sun is the most successful and the least attractive British newspaper. It is not so much a newspaper, more an entertainment sheet. Its staff--and I have written a column for the Sun in the past-- refer to it as "the comic". The truth is that as standards fall, circulation figures rise. Such newspapers lie in search of profit. Oscar Wilde observed :
"In the old days, men had the rack, now they have the press." The rackmaster is Mr. Rupert Murdoch, who is Australia's revenge for Arthur Phillip, captain of HMS Sirius. Mr. Murdoch's republican sympathies have nothing to do with his recently acquired American nationality. "Les Patterson" may have accepted a knighthood, but not Mr. Murdoch.
The Sun never neglects the royal family, but sucks it as if it were an orange. It treats the royals as if they were a soap opera, but with the difference that the Sun writes the
Column 1311script. Its heroes and villains are the heroes and villains of its choosing. It has already scored a double first-- an injunction secured by lawyers acting for the Queen to stop publication of a footman's memoirs, and the legal action taken last October after it published a stolen picture of members of the royal family. That theft cost the newspaper £100,000. Elton John, on the other hand, has cost it £1 million.
In the Sun, the Prince of Wales is shown as a wimp, his wife as "fun- loving" and their marriage as a subject of ceaseless speculation. The UK Press Gazette, a trade newspaper, argued in an editorial last year :
"the truth is an alien quality to most tabloid Royal reporting. Most stories have only the faintest basis of fact, and the pictures to go with them are obtained by the sort of invasion of privacy that no Fleet Street editor would tolerate if inflicted upon his own family".
Here comes the rub. It can be argued that celebrities such as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) are fair game, although it is not so argued by me. But what about the families of public people? Last year the News of the World, under the editorship of a Wendy Henry--the first lady of Fleet Street--carried as a centre-page spread the sad story of the love affair of the daughter of a Member of the House. The boyfriend in question had flogged the story of the affair to Ms. Henry, who published it--not because the love affair was in any way different from a thousand others, but because of the girl's father. The spread was illustrated with pictures of the Member and his wife. Ms. Henry was later sacked, although whether it was for being vile or not being vile enough was never made clear. Leslie Grantham is the star of EastEnders--"Dirty Den". His father, Wally Grantham, is a Conservative councillor in Rushmoor in my constituency. The Granthams' life has been made a misery by the attentions of Sun reporters in particular, who have staked out their house, cultivated their neighbours and monopolised their telephones. When he heard about today's debate Mr. Grantham rang to urge me to vote for the Bill, which I shall.
In the tabloid newspapers one apology is very much like another. It is enough to say that the Sun easily headed the complaints league last year, with 15 complaints to the Press Council upheld and one partly upheld. I doubt that Rupert Murdoch or his editor Kelvin MacKenzie much care. The 16 rebukes are probably painted on MacKenzie's fuselage like so many RAF roundels on an ME 109. In a society that seems increasingly divided between yobs and yuppies, it is easy to condemn the Sun and its kind, and its defenders may accuse me of hypocrisy or pomposity. Yet the success of newspapers like the Sun certainly raises some hard questions. Does MacKenzie really do no more than hold a glass to the face of his readers? Does the Sun lead, or does it simply follow?
Mike Molloy, the editorial director of the Daily Mirror, says that the Sun was the first paper to spot the Right-wing yob emerging. Professor John Vincent of Bristol, on the other hand--he writes a column not only for The Times but for the Sun, and in the same week--says that the Sun works on the frontiers of literacy. Will Mr. Kelvin MacKenzie ever be knighted, as was his predecessor Sir "Larry" Lamb? The answer must surely be "over the Queen's dead body".
The real villains of the piece are the newspaper proprietors. In the past the press lords were more
Column 1312circumspect. They sought the good opinions of their peers, and many of them wanted to sit in the other place. Today they suffer from no such inhibitions. They change their nationality as often as they change their shirts.
Ms. Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South) : I hesitate to follow the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), who put so clearly points that I, too, wish to make, but I should like to make some further comments.
I have looked carefully at what the press has said about the Bill. Discussing press freedom, Hugo Young observes in The Guardian that the voyeurism that appears in the Sun and other tabloids has nothing to do with the interests of the quality newspapers. The British press now finds itself in a crisis of legitimacy, so relentlessly do some of its members pursue people in their private lives.
There is a delicate balance between investigative journalism and rights of privacy, and I do not think that the Bill deals sufficiently with that balance. There are dangers in the Bill, and I have many reservations about it. The time has come, however, when the House must address itself to how some members of the press now operate, and to whether their operations are legitimate.
I hesitate to use as an example something that happened to me, but I feel that we must be forthright and tell the perpetrators of these appalling stories that whatever our walk of life--whether we are Members of Parliament, prominent in society through trade union activities, or the families of the victims of tragedies--we have a right to strike back. My patience is exhausted by journalists who tell me that they have codes of conduct and that the press must keep itself in order ; it is patently failing to do so. We have been very patient with those members of the press, but if they cannot police themselves through professional standards, that policing must be done through legislation.
I have taken advice on what happened to me, and I have been told that the journalists involved were in contempt of the House. I could have taken the matter to the Committee of Privileges, but, because that option would afford me a protection not available to ordinary members of the public, I decided not to take it.
The story goes like this. Hon. Members may remember that a week ago yesterday I put a question to the Prime Minister on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd). Within hours journalists were at my home in Bristol--none of them spoke to me here--harassing my friends and family. They did not have legitimate queries about what they thought of my question ; they were looking for possible sordid or unsavoury episodes in my past, or indeed my present, that they could plaster across their newspapers, simply because they did not like the question that I had put in the House. As if that were not bad enough, the next day two Sun reporters hot-footed it down to Bristol and encamped themselves outside my ex-husband's house. Although we have been separated for six years, he lives very near to me. The journalists visited community projects that my husband and I had been involved in ; they went to his place of work ; they sat outside his house from early in the morning until 8.40 pm on Friday night. Neighbours were suspicious about those two people sitting outside the house, so they rang the police. The police later told them that they had been informed that two reporters from the
Column 1313Sun were extremely anxious to speak to Mr. Primarolo about Mrs. Primarolo. They wanted to dredge up anything that could be used to discredit me, because they did not like the question that had been asked in the House.
My ex-husband got in and out of his house for the entire day over the back garden fence. All our friends had to be warned. They were very upset about the possibility of saying a word out of place which would then be blazoned across the newspaper as an attack on me. My ex-husband spent Friday night with friends.
I have an 11-year-old son. We had to make arrangements to get him out of school by the back door, because we know the depths to which that newspaper will sink. The last thing I wanted was to see a photograph of my son set against an unpleasant, insinuating article in that newspaper. My son was very upset the next day. We had to discuss in some depth whether it is correct for newspapers to be able to do that.
Apart from that unpleasant article that appeared on the Friday, there were no further reports about me in the press, and none appeared in the Sun, but the point is that I should never have been subjected to that treatment. My family, friends and associates should not have been subjected to it either simply because their political complexion had led journalists to be angry with me for the effrontery of asking the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley on the Floor of the House.
It has been suggested to me that a person holding office in this House under this Government spoke to members of the press lobby and helped them along with their story. He believed that they were sympathetic to the Government, so he gave them information that included completely unfounded allegations and lies about me, which resulted in the harassment of people who are dear and close to me. We are discussing a much wider subject than just whether cases can be taken to the courts when the press have invaded our privacy. I accept entirely that journalists have a right to investigate hon. Members. We are public figures. There are things that it is legitimate for journalists to investigate, but I do not accept that they are entitled to muck-rake, to fabricate, to spread lies about us and then say that we have recourse to the courts. They should not be doing it in the first place. I do not want to have to go to court to obtain damages afterwards ; I do not want them to do it in the first place, because there is always somebody, somewhere, who says, "There is no smoke without fire."
I intend to quote what was written in The Independent by Peter Tatchell about the many, many lies that were spread about him. He said :
"The after effect is that my income, political future and physical safety remain in jeopardy six years later. For the journalists who wrote the stories I am now old news and they have largely forgotten me : the bigots whose prejudices they aroused have not."
It is a question of rights and responsibilities. Journalists have rights to investigate and rights to freedom, but those rights have to be balanced by responsibilities because of the consequences of their actions for many other people. I do not believe that they have proved that they respect those responsibilities. The problem has grown considerably worse since the Younger committee reported. We intend to use the Bill, despite our reservations, as a vehicle for debate on this subject.
Column 1314The sponsors of the Bill list a number of areas in clause 7 that they consider to be private. I do not agree about all those areas. As an example, I refer to personal financial affairs. When the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) moved the Second Reading he did not make clear exactly what he meant. If I had massive investments in French water companies--the French water companies that are sniffing around Wessex Water and all the other water authorities in the run up to privatisation--if I were passionately keen, which I am not, on voting for water privatisation and if I therefore intended to go around the country advocating the benefits of water privatisation, it would be wholly legitimate for the press to point out that I had invested money in French water companies and that I stood to make personal gain from privatisation.
Ms. Primarolo : I see the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I still do not think that that is made clear enough. It is not good enough for us just to claim recourse to the courts or to say that it is in the public interest, because somebody would challenge it. It could be argued out in court by the person who felt that it was not a legitimate public interest or who could claim that the media had got hold of the information by devious methods. The matter could get as far as the courts. The media would have to defend themselves for taking that action. I do not believe that that should be necessary. The point needs to be made clearer.
Mr. John Browne : The basic point is clear. There would be a defence of public interest. If there were any doubt in the mind of the court about the validity of the case for privacy versus public interest, the court would decide in favour of publication. The case that the hon. Lady has cited is a clear case of public interest. I hope that the hon. Lady will concentrate on the fact that the Bill is not designed to prevent investigation. The question is what one does with the information when one has obtained it.
Ms. Primarolo : This debate should be conducted in Committee. The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not engage in it now. I do not agree with him. The Bill does not make it clear and the matter needs to be looked into.
The hon. Member for Winchester spoke on television this morning. It is interesting to note that he cited a case that suggested that standards were becoming more flexible. He referred to a woman who had had an abortion and who then could not make up her mind whether she was for or against abortion. The hon. Gentleman felt that that was a legitimate matter to investigate and to comment on. I disagree with him, but such examples will have to be discussed in Committee. The House should give the Bill a Second Reading so that these issues can be thrashed out in Committee. If we are still not satisfied with the Bill when it is reported to the House, we can vote it down. However, the time has come when we have to consider what is the relationship of journalists to our private lives and to those of other people. Legal aid will have to be provided. If the right to privacy is a right at all, it must be a right for everybody. It is not a right that one should be able to enjoy just because one can afford to go to court.
The Bill should not enable solicitors to make lots of money, or people to obtain huge damages by going to
Column 1315court. Its purpose ought to be a return to a dialogue with journalists about what is and what is not legitimate journalism, so that stories of the kind I have mentioned do not appear. Then we can get back to normal, when the press is respected, and clearer lines have been drawn to define the rights of privacy of the public and hon. Members. The information that will be made available to the public will then be more specific and more relevant and will enable them to make fairer judgments about whether we are adequate to represent them and whether other people in institutions outside the House are fit to serve them.
For those reasons, I shall vote for the Bill today, but will reserve my position to see whether some matters are clarified in Committee. The press must realise that investigative journalism does not give journalists the right to destroy, to harass and to make people's lives a misery. A balance has to be struck and the Bill offers us the opportunity to do that.
Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on his luck in the ballot and particularly on the skill and determination with which he has pursued a matter with which I have been closely associated in the past few weeks.
The Bill concerns people from all walks of life. It is not only about those in the public eye and their families. Those of us who saw "Newsnight" saw what happened to the people of Lockerbie. We know what happened to the victim of the Ealing rape case, and we heard that when a young boy had been drowned, the following day his parents had to see, on the front page of a local newspaper, a photograph of his body being winched up to a helicopter. In Stoke on Trent recently there was the very sad case of a lady who, unfortunately and tragically, was dying and who wanted to raise money for an appeal. She approached a newspaper, hoping to make that appeal as successful as possible. I understand that she had made some reference to her husband's future life. The newspaper turned that story around in such a way as to imply that, as she was dying, she was choosing a future wife for her husband. Such practices are absolutely and wholly repellent and have to be stopped.
The Bill is being proposed at the right time ; it is about time that something was done. It is 17 years since the Younger committee reported. It concluded :
"On balance, there is no need at present for a general law of privacy."
It is pretty remarkable that, although the Younger committee had frequently been put forward as saying that there should be no general law on privacy, that is not what it said. Quite clearly, the members of the committee regarded their views as provisional, dependent upon whether their recommendations to beef up the Press Council produced proper results. We know the answer to that. There is absolutely no question but that the committee thought the Press Council would do the job. It is equally clear that it cannot.
By all accounts, the position has become much worse. I recently came across an interesting article in The Spectator written by Michael Trend, which stated :
"What have the press been making of this? Why have they largely failed to take up the debate on fundamental principles that has been offered to them?"
Column 1316He gave an interesting example :
"One tabloid leader writer (who, without seeing the humour in it, demanded that I respect his rights of privacy' by not naming him or his paper) told me that at the moment he was quite out of ideas'. He could think of no better line to argue against the Bill than that as it would be bad for his paper it must be bad for its readers." Shortly before, in an article in The Daily Telegraph, Honor Tracy wrote an article about an anonymous tabloid editor who is quoted as saying :
" if a story is good for circulation he will print it, as the publicity value outweighs even a heavy libel award against him." Private information is circulating under the cloak of privacy, revealing what is going on. My final quote is from the Second Reading debate on the Right of Privacy Bill- -Brian Walden's Bill--on 23 January 1970. In an intervention, the then hon. Member for Buckingham, Mr. Robert Maxwell, said :
"Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the principle which he objects to the Bill introducing for the first time into our laws--namely, a right of privacy directly instead of, as it has been indirectly--would he not agree that the public are of the opinion that the right of privacy exists, but that the trouble is that that right has been given only so far in our legislation indirectly and that it is riddled with holes and abuses? What the Bill seeks to do is to put that right.--[ Official Report, 23 January 1970 ; Vol. 794, c. 915.] I found that advice very instructive and extremely helpful. There is no question there being no remedy to deal with the present invasions of privacy. We have already heard about the legal waiver and the difficulties experienced by people faced with rulings that are flouted. It has been said that the Bill would be a Bill only for the wealthy. I must say most emphatically that that is not true for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester and other hon. Members have given today. The new arrangements for the courts will help to speed up justice and make it cheaper, but, as has been said, actions could be taken in the county court.
In addition, inevitably a deterrent value would emerge from these proposals, and would inevitably lead to adjustments in the mechanisms within each newspaper and to the mechanisms and administration of the Press Council. I do not believe that the Bill means that there need not be a Press Council. At the moment, the press has to live with the libel laws within which journalists can conduct investigations and ensure that ethical standards are maintained. The Bill seeks to ensure that people have direct personal rights that they can sustain. We have heard about the important contribution to that debate by Lord Alexander.
It is argued that only the wealthy will be able to benefit from the Bill, but that applies equally to libel, yet no one would say that there should be no libel laws merely on that account.
I turn now to the workability of the Bill, and in particular to the definitions within it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, the Bill has been vetted by some of the best legal brains in the country. All Bills contain definitions. Those definitions obviously have to be left to the courts as that is one of their main tasks. The term "defamation" and the expression "public interest" have already been defined in terms that include the need to ensure that justice is seen to be done. But if we consider another example that has been mentioned, private nuisance, there is a deep irony in the fact that, where property is affected, private nuisance can give rise to an action in tort. But that was for the protection of property.
Column 1317That is a throw-back from the 18th century when those principles were being developed. Is it not ironic that there can be an action in tort for that but not to protect human life?
The Press Council already defines public interest or public benefit, as
"a legitimate and proper public interest and not only a prurient and morbid curiosity."
It defines the invasion of privacy as an unwarranted intrusion into private life. It happily applies its definitions, even if it cannot enforce them. Those who wish to do so can study the 1976 declaration of principles. The Press Council recognises the need for a remedy but cannot ensure one. In effect, it acts as a court, albeit an inadequate one. That directly affects people in their day-to-day lives.
If the Press Council alone cannot be entrusted with such an important task, what are the choices? One could substitute an ombudsman, as I have heard mentioned--I do not include the ombudsman whose appointment was announced a few days ago and who was described in The Spectator as "Quite a good joke." If we were to have an ombudsman, it would have to be on a statutory and enforceable basis. There would have to be an appeal system and the question would arise of to whom a complainant would appeal and who would appoint him. Would it become mixed up in political appointments? There would also be questions of evidence, the need for cross-examination and who would pay the fees. There would have to be open hearings and consistent precedents. The system would contain all the characteristics of a court but none of its advantages.
I have examined the arguments against former privacy Bills that have been debated in the House. The reasons contained in those debates are no more convincing than those being given today. The case for such legislation today is much stronger. Last year the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), and another Minister and, in 1983, the noble lord Lord Elton all issued warnings to the press. They said, "You must watch out. If you don't get your act together, legislation will be introduced to deal with the problem."
The Government recognise that there is a problem and that it cannot be shuffled under the carpet. When my hon. Friend the Minister of State replies, will he give us a constructive suggestion on which to work? Will he seriously consider the implications of rejecting this measure or, effectively, leading us into a cul-de-sac over the Bill? There will always be a tomorrow and there is always a request for one more chance. However, these arguments have been continuing for 17 years to no effect and they will wash no longer. The insurance policy is void. We all remember the adage, "Publish and be damned." The problem now is that it is the victim who is damned and not he who publishes. Press freedom was nurtured and developed to protect individual freedom, in the House as well as outside. Now that press freedom is being used to deny individual freedom. All who cherish the freedom of the press should support the Bill, because it is a powerful means of righting wrong while restoring the press to its true role as a defender of liberty for all.
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Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : It is with some trepidation that I rise to follow such a master parliamentary draftsman as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) and to oppose a Bill over which he has had an influence. He is the man who reputedly has the roundel of the Single European Act on his fuselage. I also have trepidation in opposing the Bill having just heard the fresh and livid speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) who, a matter of hours ago, was the object of the rampaging rat packs of the tabloid press. The story she told clearly angered the House and it is to the House's credit that it can get angry at such behaviour. However, when one hears of abuse, there is often more heat than light. All hon. Members would do well to remember that one cannot legislate on the basis of worst abuse. One should not legislate in the heat, no matter how long the heat has been in the baking. I accept that the problems have been getting worse for a long time. However, that is not the right atmosphere in which to legislate on such a serious matter.
There is no doubt that there is a major problem with the British press. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley) in an elegant and witty speech said that it is a British problem. No other country, probably in the world but certainly in Europe, has a press that is so heavily bottom-loaded--if hon. Members will forgive the pun--where so many copies of the worst types of newspaper dominate the market. It is a British problem which has been with us for a long time and is getting worse.
That the media have a case to answer is denied by no one. Anyone who has scanned, as I have in the run-up to the debate, the press coverage of the Bill, especially in serious newspapers, can see that the press recognises that it has a case to answer. If one walks into a newsagents, especially on a Sunday, where the newspapers are spread across the counter, one can see at a glance that the media have a case to answer. If one studies the dramatic escalation in libel awards in the courts, one can see that juries- -microcosms of the British public--think that the media have a case to answer. In 1986 the total amount of libel damages awards made in British courts was only £416,000, less than the total in one celebrated case in 1987 and only one third of the total awards made by juries in that year. That enormous escalation is a further example of the extent to which the media have a case to answer.
The spectacle--hilarious if it were not so revolting--of the Sun appointing its present managing editor as its ombudsman to deal fairly and squarely with complaints is enough to make a horse laugh. It is further evidence of the extent to which the media feel that their ground is shifting beneath them.
As the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) made clear, Gallup polls show that a majority of the public think that the press goes too far. That must be put into context--in this we are implicitly levelling criticisms at our constituents--because the same people who are polled by the Gallup pollsters and who express repugnance at the daily and weekly fare available in the newspapers, are buying those newspapers in ever increasing numbers. The Sun and the News of the World are the most successful newspapers in Europe, if not the world. Their sales are rising rather than falling, despite the considerable larger number of titles available now than a few years ago.
Column 1319Therefore, the Gallup poll results must be balanced with that. Whether the British public get the press they deserve is a moot point and we cannot hide from that.
There has undoubtedly been a collapse in press standards. Stories have been splashed on the front page and carried over to pages 7 and 8 that a few years ago might have been spiked by the editors. In a splendid speech, the hon. Member for Aldershot said that the Murdoch press bears much responsibility for this problem. The arrival of this least-welcome immigrant and his emergence as the most powerful press baron in the world has coincided with a spectacular but successful drop in standards as his profits have risen and media power expanded. I heard on the grapevine--I heard it again as I was entering the Chamber but I will not betray the confidence of who said it--that Mr. Murdoch has visited No. 10 to ask its inhabitant whether, even at this late stage, this Bill and the Right of Reply Bill can be stopped or blunted. We are unaware of the Prime Minister's response, but we know that Mr. Murdoch has some influence with No. 10. His newspapers are obsessive supporters of the Government, but it remains to be seen whether his lobbying will have any effect.
The concentration of press ownership in the hands of an American citizen, who was formerly an Australian citizen, is a matter of concern. Other newspapers watching his circulation figures zoom have been forced by the market forces so beloved by Conservative Members to follow him downwards. It would be welcome if my concern was shared by Conservative Members, but this subject will be dealt with on another occasion.
Because of my experiences, I have some trepidation in opposing the Bill, especially given the stories that we have heard this morning. As is well enough known, the hon. Member for Winchester and I have been the subject of the most rapacious interest by the yellow press and the tabloid rat pack. I should not like to enter into an argument with the hon. Gentleman, but I contend that I have probably suffered more than him or perhaps any other hon. Member from their interest. It is worth running through a few of my experiences because they are germane to the debate. At a press conference a month or two after the election at which I was elected, which was called to deal with quite different matters, I was confronted by a journalist from a national newspaper who had documents that had been stolen from a friend of mine. He proceeded to ask me, in full view of the entire press corps, with cameras whirring and microphones recording, a series of the most personal questions. Crucially, they were questions to which the journalist already knew the answers, so there was no hiding place. I responded honestly if a little colourfully and the balloon went up. I may have been an hon. Member for a short time, but I have been in public life for most of my career in one form or another and cannot claim to be naive. Within hours, those honest if colourful remarks had been transformed in the editorial offices of Fleet street into a different story, which seemed--it was probably because there was little news around and the silly season was upon us--to be the most important of the day--my sex life of several years before becoming an hon. Member.
Within hours, all those connected with me from my elderly grandmother, my mother, my wife, her father, our neighbours and neighbours of friends of mine were besieged in their homes by many journalists. I was astonished that so many reporters were on the books of
Column 1320national newspapers. Outside my home, there were more than 20 journalists for 48 hours. They were burning night lights, had little primus stoves to cook their tea and camp beds on which to sleep, although they took it in turns to ensure that no one could sleep by ringing the doorbell, banging the door and knocking on the window throughout the night. This was, to say the least, a harrowing experience for the people in the house. It was harrowing for my neighbours in the leafy environs of Blackheath, who had never been invaded by a group of louts from the tabloid press.
If I thought that that was bad, what was to come was worse. In common with the experiences of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South, the attention switched from me--I could take the attention--to innocent people. The most innocent person was my five-year-old daughter, who was most alarmed by the whirring of a dozen or more cameras. She was chased down the path into the John Bull primary school in Blackheath. The school was ultimately invaded by a photographer characteristically wearing a dirty mackintosh, under which dangled his camera. The janitor was asked where my daughter could be found as the photographer was her uncle and had come to take her from school for her own protection from journalists and photographers. The janitor, who knew better, having read the papers of the previous 48 hours, bundled him out. Suffice it to say that much distress was caused to people who were innocent of even the uttering of colourful, honest language. They were connected with me only by blood or friendship.
Someone stole my telephone card index system and gave it to one of the newspapers. Every woman in it from 15 to 90 years was systematically telephoned, often at home when they were sitting with their husbands and families, and asked whether they would like to talk about their affair with me, when none of them had had one. The houses of the most promising, those aged somewhere between 18 and 40, were staked out. Two of the women were offered money. A woman in Glasgow was offered £1,000 by the Sun to tell of her affair with me when in fact she had never had one. She turned the offer down. I shudder to think what would have happened if the newspapers had hit upon a woman who badly needed £1,000 and who might have been prepared to lie. I can speculate about what might have happened-- it would have been plastered across every newspaper in the land.
I am probably more aware than any hon. Member of just how deeply distressing and unpleasant is the experience of being pursued by those rat packs, as they are known in Fleet street. The rat packs comprise men and occasionally women. That great organ of truth and knowledge, the Sunday Sport sent a female correspondent. She passed a note through the letter box addressed to my wife in which she gave her name and said she was from the Sunday Sport and wanted to conduct an interview with my wife. She assured my wife in the note that she would conduct it with the greatest sensitivity. My wife was not an expert then on the different qualities of every newspaper in Fleet street. However, she knew enough to know that it was unlikely that the Sunday Sport would treat the interview in that way and she politely turned down the invitation. She was also offered very large sums of money to come out and talk. However, she did not. I am well aware of the extent of the problem. The issue is whether the Bill is the answer or throws too many babies out with the bath water, as I contend. I will oppose it. If
Column 1321it is not an abuse of the privileges of the House, I want to state now that if the Bill reaches Committee, I should very much like to be a member of that Committee. I hope that it is not improper to make that bid now.
Britain is already too secret to afford new restrictions on the freedom of the press. Freedom of information in this country is already in too short supply. Along with curbing the excesses of the worst newspapers, the Bill risks curbing the very necessary and good things about the British press-- the kind of investigative journalism on which a free society depends.
The House should tread carefully and not appear to be rushing into passing this legislation. I have no wish to impugn the motives of the Bill's supporters. I know some of them very well and respect them enormously. However, William Cobbett in his observations on the immigration of Doctor Joseph Priestly wrote :
"amongst the persons I have heard expressed a wish to see the Press what they called free and at the same time to extend the restraints on it with regard to persons in their private life, I have never that I know of met with one who had not some powerful motive of his own for the wish, and who did not feel that he had some vulnerable part about himself."
I do not agree with that quote. That quote does not apply to many of the Bill's sponsors. However, the House should be careful before giving the impression that it is about digging moats around the castles of the rich and powerful.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : The House has listened with great interest to the personal experiences that the hon. Gentleman has endured. I am sure that I am not alone in being surprised to learn that after those experiences, he will oppose the Bill. Does he accept that today he has been able to put right many of the inaccuracies that have been promulgated throughout the land about him and that that opportunity is not available to our fellow citizens for whom the Bill is designed to provide a remedy?
Some of us have bigger castles than others and some have more skeletons in those castles than others. If we have skeletons in our castles, we must be careful in a free society that we do not use our power. We have power and although I am not rich, I have more power, as the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth) explained, than most people. I would be very careful not to give the impression that I am filling my moat, which only I as a legislator have the power to do, with sufficient water to keep out the most energetic investigators. We must be careful not to give the impression that we powerful people living in glass houses are trying to ban the throwing of stones. That would send a message to the public which would devalue parliamentary democracy.
It is strange that so many Conservative Members are keen on this legislation. I do not make that as a petty political point. It is a philosophical point. From Edmund Burke downwards it has traditionally been the position of Conservative Members in the House and Conservatives elsewhere that the general rights, such as the right of privacy, should not be--
Mr. Galloway : The hon. Gentleman is welcome to intervene, but my understanding, is that the philosophical position of British Conservatives has been to rely on specific remedies rather than to bestow general rights on people.
Mr. Galloway : Edmund Burke was possibly the most conservative Member of Parliament ever. His philosophy was exceedingly conservative. He is the idelogical mentor of many Conservative Members. That cannot be gainsaid. As I understand it, it has always been the position of British Conservatives that the legislative books should not be cluttered with new legislation, unless that legislation is absolutely necessary.
Specific remedies are available, but they must be reformed, radically overhauled and transformed in some cases, to cope with many of the abuses about which we have heard and which we know exist. We do not need to create this general right of privacy.
There is not much support on the Conservative Benches for a Bill of rights. Not many Conservative Members signed Charter 88 which was formulated by some right hon. and hon. Members. There is not much support on the Conservative Benches for giving the British population a general set of rights, and that is presumably because of the philosophical objection of Conservative Members to that approach to these questions.
The hon. Member for Winchester made a Freudian slip. The great advocates of the free market are less keen on a free market in information than in a free market in virtually every other aspect of our national life. The very water that we drink can be subject to the free market. My grandfather used to say that if the Tories could bottle the air we breathe and sell it to us, they would. Conservative Members have less enthusiasm, however, for a free market in information.
There are other remedies, some of which it is true are working imperfectly. Only last week I received £5,000 in damages from The Guardian for something written about me by a journalist whose work I greatly respect. I read his articles avidly every day. I am grateful for Andrew Rawnsley's error, because it has made me a richer man--or at least has made my overdraft smaller.
Libel can be pursued. However imperfect the process is, people can win libel cases and some of them are won spectacularly. I have a splendid libel lawyer whom I recommend to all right hon. and hon. Members, Mr. Oscar Bevsalink of Wright, Webb and Syrett, or "Sue, Grabbit and Runne" as they are known in the trade. He is open for business, and has dealt with some of the most hideous abuses of press power in recent times. Although this will not find much favour with Conservative Members--I have no complaint about it--I shall mention the scandalous calumnies which were printed against Mrs. Carmen Proetta for daring to say that she saw something in Gibraltar which Conservative Members did not like to hear. She was branded the "tart of Gib" and was slandered in every filthy newspaper in the country. Mrs. Proetta, through the good offices of my lawyer and hers, has begun to clean up. She will take the British press for a substantial sum of money. That is available to far too few people. Libel actions take far too long, cost far too much, and the
Column 1323dangers for people entering into such a case are far too great. It must be said that damages are far too high. There is a clear case for the reform of the libel laws. We need a fast track system with a low cost floor and ceiling of damages, so that these matters can be resolved more quickly and efficiently. But libel is one specific remedy to use against the abuse of the press.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a clear distinction between libel and slander and unwarranted and unjustified intrusion of privacy, which is the area that this legislation seeks to deal with?
Mr. Galloway : I accept that there is a difference. Although in some cases the only difference is that something which is printed and is said to be an abuse of privacy is true and something that is libellous is by definition untrue. If I write something about a person that is untrue, I have committed a libel. If I know something about that person--which he does not wish me to reveal--that is true, the Bill would preclude me from revealing that unless I could show public interest, because it would be an abuse of that person's privacy. Not everything that is not libellous should be banned from the public domain. It is correct that some things about people should be known, even where a person's privacy is, by definition, invaded.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there are things that are legal in this country--for instance, his own previous life outside this House, where the activities in which he was involved were legal--but about which it might not be appropriate for the wider country to know? In the case of the hon. Gentleman, it sparked an investigation into him, his friends and acquaintances, which on any view was completely unwarranted.
Mr. Galloway : I agree that the way in which the investigations were pursued was completely unwarranted. Whether the public has a right to know about the sex lives of politicians is a moot and debatable point, especially if those politicians are members of a party which takes a politically ideological stance against permissiveness for the family, and are for Victorian values. If in their private lives, they are acting in a way which is different from their public stance, it is at least debatable that the public has a right to know about it.