Mr. Greg Knight : The hon. Gentleman is on far sounder ground now than when he was discussing the ideology of the Conservative Party. The hon. Gentleman has made a number of valid points. Is not one of the crucial points to those of us who are not happy with this Bill, not what we know the Bill to cover, but what we are unsure it will cover? Will he reflect, for example, on the legitimate users of private information, such as local
Column 1324authorities and employers, who may, as I read the Bill, have to seek the permission of every person on whom they have private information to ensure that they are safe and free from the threat of being taken to court?
Mr. Galloway : I believe that the Bill--for the reasons which the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) has made clear--produces a potential thicket of offences and litigation which will certainly excite and encourage the saliva of our learned Friends. It would certainly be a bonanza for them.
Mr. Galloway : The hon. Lady says "surely", but I am not so sure. All I know is that we will potentially be putting into the court rooms and into judges' chambers a thicket of judgments and decisions about what is private and what is public. I do not have the touching faith of some hon. Members in judge-made law. Anyone who has studied the "Spycatcher" affair right up to the final and upper levels of the British judiciary, and anyone who knows the social and political background and ideas of the majority of British judges, would be wary of transferring decisions, such as what can be published in the public domain, from editorial rooms into court rooms. I am rather anxious about that aspect.
The libel law provides one clear avenue. That law must be radically overhauled, but it is a specific remedy which should not be underestimated. Existing law can stop much of the other abuses about which we have heard. The hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) raised the plight of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise. I was moved, as all hon. Members were, by that story. The examples given, however, by the hon. Gentleman of the abuses of press power were all blatantly illegal under existing law. Smashing down the doors of the captain's intensive care unit was a clear breach of the law and the journalist who did so should have been hauled off to prison. A new press law is not needed to deal with such an abuse. If someone's house is broken into and an electronic eavesdropping device planted, that is breaking and entering--burglary and all other manner of breaches of the criminal law. A new privacy law is not needed to deal with such things. The laws of trespass could also deal with some of the abuses that have been mentioned.
Mr. Devlin rose--
Mr. Devlin : No, this is a different point. Is the hon. Member aware that the legal definition of burglary is entering premises with intent to commit theft, rape or criminal damage? If someone breaks into a person's house to plant a bug it is possible that he is not guilty of breaking and entering with the intent to commit theft as there is no property in information. The only way in which to charge such a person would be if he criminally damaged some part of the property when entering.
Column 1325Mr. Greg Knight rose--
Mr. Galloway : I would rather not give way as I have been reminded that I have been speaking for quite a time and I must get on. The hon. Member for Winchester said that it was possible to "exaggerate" the dangers of muzzling the press. I have visited many countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the middle east where the press is muzzled very nicely thank you. It is not possible to overstate the dangers of muzzling the press. Although the Bill does not represent a major attempt to gag the press, it is significant when taken together with other things that have affected broadcasting and press freedom. Given the other existing intrinsic blocks to freedom of the press in this country, the Bill is a dangerous step, which will assist in muzzling free investigative reporting. It is not possible to exaggerate the significance of that.
Obviously the law must find a balance and I agree with the adage, "My right to swing my right fist ends when it reaches the tip of the other fellow's nose." The hon. Member for Winchester has made it clear that the Bill is designed to shift the balance from journalists and the editor and move decision-making from the editorial room to the court room. That causes me anxiety because public versus private interest is a vexed issue.
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)--he is not in the Chamber for the moment--said that it was not in the public interest to know how poor or how rich a Member of Parliament is. I disagree. If an hon. Member has millions of pounds in the bank it is a matter of public interest because that influences his perceptions of the world. If an hon. Member has an overdraft of more than £500, 000 that is also in the public interest. I must declare that I have an overdraft, but it is not of that dimension. If I had a gigantic overdraft the public would have a right to know because it reveals something about the way in which I conduct my financial affairs. Therefore, that would have some influence on my ability to consider the nation's financial and economic affairs. It is absurd to pretend otherwise. I was astonished that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery--a Liberal at that--said that the public had no right to know such things.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about the difficulties of defining what is or is not in the public interest and I shall enlarge upon that later.
The hon. Gentleman believes that it would be in the public interest for the financial affairs of a politician to be known and that if that person has £20 million in the bank, that should be common knowledge. Surely there is a good argument against that on the ground that if that information is known it is likely that his children could be liable to kidnap.
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : Some of our previous Prime Ministers have had great difficulties in raising personal finance from time to time, but that did not make them lousy Prime Ministers. Perhaps they could not maintain their personal finances, but that did not mean that they did not make a great contribution to the country. I believe that my hon. Friend's argument is rather weak.
Mr. Galloway : I will reach a conclusion shortly. I accept the points made by my hon. Friend and by the Minister. Although a Chancellor of the Exchequer may have an overdraft of £700,000 that does not, of course, negate the possibility of his being a good Chancellor. Nevertheless that information should be in the public domain so that people can weigh in the balance the financial skills, responsibility and probity of that Chancellor. I am not suggesting that every politician should go outside and hold up his bank balance, but we cannot complain if our financial affairs become public knowledge and if they are considered germane by those who write about us.
We have spent most of the debate discussing the press--we have not talked about television or radio--but what about the publishing industry? What about the biographer and those who write memoirs? Those activities, which are crucial to a free society, would be severely circumscribed by the Bill.
I believe that it is generally accepted that when a biography is written about someone of interest, one wants to know about the whole man. As a result of the Bill, the subject of a biography could go to court and suppress large sections of it because he does not want the public to know certain things. I do not believe that that is in the public interest.
Goldman's biography of John Lennon was a repugnant piece of work, which traduced the memory of a great man. Large sections of that book could have been suppressed under the Bill by action through the British courts. Although I loathed Mr. Goldman's book, I could not be party to passing a law that significantly precluded his right to write. Kitty Kelly wrote a marvellous biography about Frank Sinatra which revealed appalling aspects of his character. As a fan of Frank Sinatra I was deeply distressed by those disclosures. Unless I am reading the Bill wrong, I believe that large sections of Kitty Kelly's book could be suppressed. If that happened we would not know the things we now know about Frank Sinatra. Some hon. Members may say that that does not matter a fig, but as a fan, or rather a former fan of Frank Sinatra, I believe that it does.
I believe that the Official Secrets Bill, the broadcasting and terrorism measures and this Bill clearly intend--perhaps unwittingly in the latter case--to chip away at our cherished and vital freedoms. That would take us down the road not to totalitarian dictatorship, but towards the status of a third-rate democracy--the poor man's democracy in Europe. I hope that we shall not take another step down that road by passing the Bill.
Mr. John Hannam (Exeter). The hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) appeared to be presenting a strong argument in support of the Bill, with examples of the gross intrusions he has experienced, but he came down in judgment against the Bill, on the same grounds as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) had expressed in an article in the Evening Standard last night. The grounds were that we should continue to give the media and press another chance and yet another chance to put its house in order.
Column 1327I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) not only on his luck in the ballot, but on taking on such a contentious and difficult issue and presenting it in the right way. I do not intend to speak for long, but I want to express my support for the principle behind the Bill and to give the reasons why the time has come for us to make the move from self-regulation to positive legal protection. It is sad that after all the years of promises being given by the media that they would uphold and practise a reasonable level of professional ethics, Parliament is having to consider their imposition by statute.
Of course, as Members of Parliament, we are opening ourselves to the usual barrage of articles accusing us of protecting our own personal interests. That is par for the journalistic course. But in all the articles that I have read implying that, there were also undercurrents of a realisation that standards have dropped too far and that it is no great surprise that legislation is being considered. The article written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford falls into the same trap of relating the Bill to an obsession of Members of Parliament to take their revenge on all the journalists who, from time to time, have invaded their privacy. That is a wrong presumption. When we enter politics, we know that we are placing ourselves in an exposed position. The reason why we have become so incensed about the lowering of standards of reporting is our contacts with constituents and our involvement in major incidents, when members of the public have suddenly found themselves thrust into the limelight. We know how often their personal privacy is being trodden underfoot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) pointed out so eloquently earlier.
Like other hon. Members, I want to recount a couple of examples of the type of intrusion that I should like to see stopped and which took place long before I entered politics. When I started my business career, I opened a small restaurant in Somerset, which my hon. Friends the Members for Winchester and for Stafford (Mr. Cash) visited in those early days. Early one evening, many years ago, a distinguished man who had achieved a good deal of publicity because of his romance with a certain royal personage, came with his elderly mother to have a meal. His mother lived nearby in Somerset. During our conversation, I learnt that they had spent the earlier part of the afternoon looking at poultry houses at a well-known poultry house manufacturer, Harry Hebditch Ltd. of Martock.
Two or three hours later, I received a telephone call from William Hickey of the Daily Express, asking me whether it was true that Group-Captain Peter Townsend had been entertaining a young woman at my restaurant. In my naievity, I thought that if I explained the simple truth, I should clear up his misapprehension, so I said that Mr. Townsend had dined at the restaurant with his mother and that he had been looking at poultry houses at a nearby factory. At midnight, that journalist arrived at the front door of poor Mr. Hebditch, the manufacturer of the poultry houses, woke him up, asked the same questions and was told the same true story. An hour later, he arrived at my front door and was sent away with a flea in his ear. An hour later, he arrived at the door of the mother of Mr. Townsend. With all the information that he had received, one would have expected the story to end there. But the next day, the headlines said :
Column 1328"Ex-Royal lover dines with woman friend in secluded restaurant." That was the first example in my life of intrusion and misrepresentation.
My second example happened a year later. I was skiing at Kitzbu"hel in Austria and I happened to be staying at the same hotel as the young Aga Khan--luckily, as I was on a package holiday. The Aga Khan was being subjected to horrific press investigation. We were horrified, several days later, to find that a newspaper reporter and photographer
After two or three days, we found that the press had positioned a photographer and journalist in a room opposite the hotel and had taken photographs through the only window visible, which happened to be the window of the Aga Khan's hotel bathroom. One cannot imagine how one could possibly use that in publicity, but photographs were taken and duly published. Such gross intrusions of the privacy of those individuals so disgusted me that I, like so many others, have always recoiled from reading newspapers and magazines that trade in such material.
What has happened since? Have the successive inquiries and reports and Press Council actions resulted in the establishment of ethical standards by the media? The answer must be no. With 309 hon. Members signing a motion last year supporting the Right of Privacy Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford, there is no doubt that we feel that something pretty drastic must be done.
Journalists to whom I have talked in recent weeks admit--privately, as one would expect--that a bottom line should be drawn on their standards and conduct. We see that privacy laws exist in other countries without threat to press freedom. As my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester said, the individual is protected under our laws against assault, defamation, trespass of property and patent and public order offences, but no effective legal protection exists for private life under English law, despite our ratification of the European convention on human rights and the international convenant on civil and political rights.
The Bill is a genuine attempt to strike the correct balance between the necessary freedom to publish information that is in the public interest-- and that would cover a great deal of the activities of Members of Parliament--and the protection for every man and woman, regardless of position or wealth, against the awful intrusions that the media so often feel they have carte blanche to operate. We are told by opponents of the Bill that the definitions are too vague and leave too much to the discretion of judges. I have always believed that our system of common law works on the assumption that the courts build up case law so that effective judgments can evolve. I do not doubt that the Bill will need some amendment in Committee and I hope that the Government will lend their support to that course rather than contriving to have the Bill to be killed.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford in his article took the line that, once again, we should give the press the benefit of the doubt, just as we did in 1970, 1972, 1977 and have repeatedly since then. If I believed that the Press Council in the 1990s would be any more effective
Column 1329than its much criticised predecessors, I might be inclined to hold back. If I believed that the editors and newspaper owners themselves would be more ethical in applying article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which provides that :
"Everybody has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence,
I might be inclined to hold back from supporting the Bill. But the appointment by the Sun of its own in-house ombudsman sent me scurrying back to my original position of total support for the Bill. I should like to see legal aid available and I should like access to juries, but the important thing at this stage is to give this vital human rights legislation a Second reading. I hope that the House will do that.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood) : I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam), because I, too, support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) has set out his stall most eloquently and has caught the public mood because public opinion is now strongly behind this measure.
The debate is being held because of growing public concern, unchecked by the propaganda of eminent leader writers, about the excesses of the press-- especially at its gutter end. For example, there is intrusion into family grief such as occurred in the case of the captain of the Herald of Free Enterprise. That case was eloquently outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), and many other examples abound from recent tragedies. Secondly, there is hounding of the royal family, the intrusion of gigantic telephoto lenses that are carried off at great expense to distant islands in the West Indies and elsewhere, so that at no time are members of the royal family allowed any time to themselves free from the fear that any private action of theirs could be exposed and subjected to the gaze of the tabloid press. Thirdly, there is the persecution of individuals, salacious stories about private lives that titillate the public and line the pockets of unscrupulous journalists and their proprietors.
As has been said, some journalists say, "We do not like doing this but we are obliged to do it." There are examples of that in history where people have said, "I was only obeying orders." Such journalists could resign if they do not like the way in which their employer requires them to work.
I shall be brief and give just one example in the third category of those that I have mentioned. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley)--I hope that that does not cause him too much enbarrassment --that people in public life are entitled to some protection. That point was most eloquently made by the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo) whose personal experience moved the House. It certainly moved me. In my own small way I had a similar experience when I asked a question at Prime Minister's Question Time. I asked my right hon. Friend whether she would support the reintroduction of corporal punishment because the day before three men had tried to batter down the door of my home at 2 o'clock in the afternoon when
Column 1330my wife was there with my baby son. That seemed a perfectly reasonable example to promote the case that I was making. Within half an hour of asking the question I had a frantic call from my wife who told me that hordes of journalists were at the door and that one newspaper had said that unless it got a nice photograph it would put in the newspaper a photograph of the house. I had to deal with the news editor of that newspaper and tell him that I would be grateful if he did not print a photograph of my house because that would attract all sorts of vandals who would know that Members of Parliament work odd hours. I had to do a deal and I regretted that. However in the interests of my family I had to do it.
Even if we have not had such experiences ourselves, many of us, like my hon. Friend the member for Aldershot, have constituents who have had such experiences. Our concern today should not be for ourselves. As I said to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) Members of Parliament are influential and in the House we have the privilege of being able to expose these excesses. The hon. Gentleman has been able to put the record right today. Our concern should be for those who have no such remedy.
Every Sunday I go to my local newsagent to scan the press. I resent paying any money to line the pockets of newspaper proprietors and have an arrangement with my newsagent to look through the papers. A glance at page one is quite sufficient and one does not need to delve any further. I shall forgo the example of a story about a world war 2 bomber found in outer space. Recently a tabloid gutter newspaper--I shall not name it or give details of the issue, because I do not want to add to the newspaper's notoriety--had a story exposing the private life of an accomplished actor who plays in a popular comedy series. He is said to have said, "I am aware that this could destroy me." We are not talking about a politician who publically advocates sobriety but is to be found in the Kremlin bar at midnight stoned out of his mind. I am not suggesting that any hon. Members are in that category, because I would be out of order if I did that. We are not talking about somebody who has taken a conscious decision to enter public life or about a clergyman who has had a secret affair with the doctor's wife. We are talking about a private individual whose sole qualification for such attention is that he has become immensely popular with the public because the talent that he deploys is widely appreciated and enjoyed by many viewers. What right have a couple of Wapping hacks to pillory this man and, in his words, "destroy him"? I strongly disapprove of the behaviour of which he is said to have been guilty, but I protest that he is not public property and has a right to a private life.
The report was sanctimonious garbage and issued an unbelievably cant invitation to readers to phone in on separate telephone numbers to say whether the actor should stay in the television series or be harried out by a bunch of unscrupulous, disgraceful, disreputable and probably anonymous hacks whose own private lives would fail to stand up to the scrutiny of a lighted match. No doubt there will be a follow-up story about this man. I have made the assumption that all this is true.
There is also the case of an hon. Friend who left the House at the last election. He is still an hon. Friend but is no longer a Member of the House. I am speaking about Harvey Proctor, and many of us know about his
Column 1331experience. He was charged with an offence and between his being charged and convicted a journalist called Annette Witteridge, a freelancer working for the News of the World, wrote a story in May 1987 suggesting that Harvey Proctor's friends were concerned about his health and that he should have an AIDS test. She told him that she had checked the story but later admitted that she had not done so and four or five months later her source told her that it was a pack of lies.
To this day the "News of the Screws"--for that is the popular name for the News of the World --has failed to retract that story. It is despicable that such people should continue to be allowed to operate in what is called a profession. They should have been drummed out of it long ago. I hope that those two examples show the kind of problem with which we are dealing.
The press is in part hostile to the Bill. Of course freedom of expression is vital and no hon. Member would gainsay that. However that freedom does not extend to the right to destroy individuals or their characters. The hon. Member for Hillhead is not in the Chamber. I say for his benefit that the free market operates, not in a vacuum but within bounds. There is the law of defamation, and the sponsors of the Bill seek to provide further clarification of the bounds within which free comment may take place. The press says that self-regulation is the safeguard, but, as early as 1962, Lord Shawcross was critical of the Press Council. Over many years we have had extensive declarations of good intent from the Press Council, none of which in my view, nor I think in the view of the House has been fulfilled.
There was a declaration of principle on privacy in April 1976 which stated :
"The publication of information about the private lives or concerns of individuals without their consent is only acceptable if there is a legitimate public interest overriding the right of privacy." That is clearly the kind of thing that the Bill seeks to address, but has the press lived up to that? The answer is no. I do not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) said in his article in yesterday's Evening Standard and I told him so last night. There is a remedy to him. He is a powerful man and can tell the press barons that, if they go beyond the boundary of what he deems to be his private life, he will come down on them like a ton of bricks. That remedy is not open to many of our fellow citizens to whom this Bill would give a remedy. That is why I have the greatest pleasure in supporting the Bill and I hope that it will be carried by the House.
Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith) : I support the Bill and do so for good reason. We should always remember that privacy is important to all of us, rich or poor, Socialist or non-Socialist. I am sure that many of us can speak from personal experiences. I can certainly give one or or two examples of my own.
An incident involving my assistant allegedly took place in the shower room of this House. I went to the Serjeant at Arms and asked for information about that alleged incident. He said that he had no information. In other words, the incident did not take place, but that did not stop the Sun printing a story. Of course, it was exciting stuff, but it was untrue. Nor did it stop the News of the World, the sister paper of the Sun, going one step further.
Column 1332It alleged that my assistant had become pregnant as a result of that so-called incident and it justified its allegation on the basis of a report thought up by a drug addict. That individual was paid a lot of money for that story. Not only did the Murdoch press feed his craving for drugs, but it fed a pack of lies to the public. Naturally, the News of the World wanted to interview my assistant and offered her £30,000 for her story. There was no story, but that did not stop the newspaper and its reporters hounding my assistant, her husband and her relatives. That was despicable. They attempted to dig the dirt, but as they found no dirt, they had to invent the dirt. That is a sad reflection on the tabloids of this country. If I condemn the Murdoch empire, I also condemn the Maxwell empire because its so-called newspaper, The People, thought that it could do a flyer. It thought that it would do a similar type of story about me, so what did it do? It found that I had originally stayed in Scotland. Journalists went to the flat at my old address. They spoke to the neighbours and asked them, "Could you find anything wrong with Ron Brown's presence at this address?" There was no criticism, but they found an old-age pensioner in that street and gave him a great deal of money to make a number of allegations. That old man--I do not blame him ; no doubt the money was useful--alleged that he could see into my bedroom. He said that he could see all sorts of lurid events which allegedly took place there. That is remarkable. He could see through two sets of curtains and two sets of brick walls because the bedroom is at the other side of the house. That is a fact. The house is still there and is now occupied by a Tory Member. I am sure that he will give a guided tour to prove my point.
Surely we have reached a stage where any story can be pumped out by the tabloids and the media, provided that they can pay for it. Unfortunately, many people are willing to accept money, irrespective of the truth of the incident. The tabloids go from bad to worse. Of course, they live up to their slogan which states, about stories, "Make it simple, make it juicy, and make it up". That has repeatedly been the case in recent years and that slogan unfortunately brings the media into disrepute. It affects many honourable journalists because most of us suspect journalists' motives. That may be unfair, but the yardstick that we use as Members of Parliament must sometimes be used elsewhere.
Some people will no doubt suggest that I am exaggerating, that I complain too much and that, after all, I could go to the Press Council. I did go to the Press Council, but it did very little. It was not particularly interested and, when it considered all the allegations, it favoured, in the main, the media. It supported the tabloids, yet the tabloids could produce no evidence against me or my assistant.
Let me give another example of how the Press Council operates. Last January, I was in Afghanistan, negotiating the release of a French journalist who was held by the Afghan Government. There was an agreement for me to phone in reports about my efforts to the Press Association. Those reports were mentioned by the Sunday Express which, in turn, tried to rubbish my efforts. It said that I had made reverse-charge calls to the Press Association from Afghanistan, so I complained to the Press Council. The council looked at my complaint and found in favour of the Sunday Express, yet the Press Association has now
Column 1333admitted that it was wrong and that the Press Council was wrong. To my knowledge the Press Council has not reversed its decision. That typifies the attitude of the Press Council at present. If a Member of Parliament cannot get a fair hearing from the Press council, who can? It will certainly not be the people outside this place whom we represent. I say that because a particular case springs to mind. Some time ago there was a rape case in Leith. It was a particularly nasty case and the tabloids were anxious to interview the victim and the mother. The mother refused and told the Sun in particular that she did not want to say anything. What did the Sun do? It made up an interview and, when a complaint was lodged with the Press Council, the council did nothing to help that particular lady.
Of course, if a person has bags of money, he can always go to the courts. We should always remember Gerald Nabarro's infamous remark that, if one is rich, one can buy justice. Sadly, that is the case today. Not everyone is wealthy enough to hire lawyers or has the money of Elton John, Jeffrey Archer or Koo Stark. Most people simply cannot afford lawyers to go to court.
I do not always agree with the Prime Minister, but she made the point some time ago, when she condemned trial by the media, that we must not simply say that we condemn it ; we should do something about it. That is why, if we wish to look for a remedy, we must consider this Bill. It may not be perfect, but at least it is a step in the right direction and perhaps it will, for once, provide some basic rights and bring some sanity back to this country, particularly in the way that reports are put out by the media. This is an important Bill and I hope that all hon. Members will support it.
Mr. Ivan Lawrence : I accord my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) for judging the moment of parliamentary and public anger that enables him to make this difficult change to the law. It is a great honour to be a sponsor. The gutter press is the unacceptable face of our free society. If the press does not like the Bill, it has only itself to blame, for, despite continuous warnings over many years, it has chosen to do nothing to control itself. The Bill is long overdue, and few in Britain will dispute that. One wonders why such a law was not placed on the statute book before.
It is partly because we do not have a written constitution enshrining a Bill of rights. We tend to forbid certain actions rather than give rights to enjoy. It is partly because the law of defamation, trespass and confidence, and the criminal law of breach of peace, have frequently been said to be adequate for dealing with problems caused by infringements of privacy. The argument that the Mancroft Bill of the 1960s was unworkable was advanced by the then very powerful Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir. It was said that such legislation would constitute a serious danger to a free press and its right to publish and enjoy free expression. Brian Walden's Bill was withdrawn when the Home Secretary of the day announced that the Government proposed establishing a Royal Commission. Resistance to a privacy law was underlined by powerful law reform committees, such as the Younger committee in
Column 13341974 and the Porter committee on defamation in 1948. The conclusion reached by them all was that the right to privacy was too drastic a remedy for dealing with the relatively infrequent occasions when privacy had been abused, and that the risk of newspapers being deterred from communicating matters of great public concern was so high that occasional intrusions should be tolerated. We can now draw on the experience of countries such as the United States that have a law of privacy, and where there seems to be little problem in telling the public what they need to know in their own interest, notwithstanding such laws.
The tide has now risen, and it is to be hoped that no Canute seated at Wapping or by the river Fleet will turn it back. How has that happened? It is because the catalogue of horrors has grown too large and has been brought too closely to the attention of right hon and hon. Members.
I have no need to improve on the stories advanced today by my hon. Friends the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) and for Aldershot (Mr. Critchley), and the hon. Members for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo), for Hillhead and for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown). However, I make mention of the totally despicable behaviour, by whichever newspaper it was, when, after the wife of one of the House's most respected Members was killed in a terrorist explosion and he lay maimed and mauled, to send its reporters to their young children's school to ask how they felt about what happened to their parents. It is difficult to imagine a more despicable act. It was at that moment that my thoughts turned to doing something far more drastic than had been previously attempted, to discipline the behaviour of a section of the press.
The tide has turned because it is now dawning on many people that, given the existence of communications satellites, sophisticated listening devices, computers and high-definition long-distance photography, the situation will become very much worse unless something is done. There is the realisation also that the Press Council has utterly failed. That is not its fault. It was never a court of law, and never had the power to stop publication. However, when a former Press Council chairman, Sir Zelman Cowen, and the present holder of that office, Louis Blom-Cooper, think that the time has come for the law to step in because the council is too feeble to discipline the gutter press, we must take cognisance of that.
Mr. Greg Knight : Will my hon. and learned Friend say when Louis Blom-Cooper commented that the law should step in? I understand that he never made such a comment. He said that he felt the Press Council as currently constituted needs changing, and that he proposes making certain amendments next week. I am not aware that he has ever made the statement that the law should step in and supplant the Press Council.
Mr. Lawrence : That is the conclusion I draw from the criticism levied by the current chairman of the council and by one of his predecessors--that their frustration is so great that something must be done. Whether the answer is strengthening the Press Council or introducing a right of privacy is a matter for the House to consider.
The tide has turned also because it is now clear that remedies existing in other areas of the law of tort and of the criminal law are inadequate for dealing with the overwhelming flood of press abuse. The hon. Member for
Column 1335Hillhead was wrong to suggest that the crime of burglary will necessarily deter someone from entering premises for the purpose of bugging them.
The final reason why I believe the tide has turned is this excellent Bill, which neatly avoids the imprecise and generalised provisions of a right to privacy that has been the subject of past criticism because of its unworkability, in favour of a more practical and realistic approach to protecting the public misuse of private information. So that privacy can be breached, yes, but the product of it cannot be used--thus making it a waste of time to invade privacy. This is a Bill whose time has come. It will be welcomed by all fair-minded people, as it will by all who have suffered at the hands of the gutter press and by their families, whose suffering has often been much greater. I suspect that the Bill is welcomed by a large section of the press, if only with relief that at last something is being done to stop the gutter press from doing something that is clearly indecent, to protect circulation when their competitors are doing the same thing. The Bill will certainly be welcomed by the decent press as a step forward in protecting the liberty of the subject. The Bill will be popular in the country because it recognises the deep feeling among all those who are privileged to live in a free society--for it has been said that, of all the jewels in the crown of human life, none shines so bright as the right to be left alone.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North) : I join other hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on his good fortune in the ballot, and also on his good judgment in choosing this topic. I thank him for doing me the honour of asking me to be one of the Bill's Labour sponsors, an honour that I gladly accept. While I have one or two reservations at this stage, as would anyone, I assure the hon. Gentleman and the Bill's other sponsors that I shall do all I can to improve the Bill and help it to reach the statute book.
Having listened carefully to the debate since 9.30 this morning, I have observed a number of ironies. First, I find it ironic that we should be criticising the press and at the same time offering its members a field day at our expense. I have been mildly amused at the almost salacious style of certain sketch writers who have scurried in and out of the Press Gallery as different hon. Members have stood up to speak. It is significant that they have been absent when the tone of the debate has been serious. I do not, of course, wish to suggest that any of it has been frivolous, but I think that the journalists have been much more interested in the gossipy, confessional contributions of some hon. Members than in attempts to analyse the problem seriously.
I do not blame the journalists for that. They make their bread by selling such nonsense, and we cannot expect them to change today simply because we happen to be debating their affairs--or our affairs, as discussed by them-- any more than we can expect the leopard to change its spots.
I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) has returned to the Chamber. He produced a wonderful expose --an appropriate word in this context--of the case for the Bill, and then went on to say that it posed a threat to freedom. I
Column 1336understand what he means, and genuinely sympathise with the need to protect press freedom ; but freedom is a two- way thing.
In an article that has already been mentioned several times this morning, the eminent barrister Robert Alexander quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes as saying :
"The right to swing my fist stops where the other man's nose begins."
That is fine as far as it goes, but does it go far enough? I have been accused by the press of almost swinging my fist. Had I done so, which I did not, and my fist had not landed, it could have been said that no freedom had been violated. But the threat to swing a fist is indeed an infringement of freedom if the potential victim happens to be frightened of receiving a fisticuff, as most people are. I would go much further than Robert Alexander. I do not think that it is enough for my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead to justify his opposition on those grounds. It is certainly not fair for him to say that he wants to be on the Standing Committee simply because he thinks that the Bill threatens to infringe freedoms and he wants to stop it from doing so if he will not allow freedom to those who are threatened.
It is also ironic that we should be discussing openness of access and what should and should not be permissible, and seeking to defend individual privacy from one point of view, when for a couple of days this week we have discussed the probability of Government agents freely infringing individual privacy. It is reassuring to see that so many Conservative Members have turned out to support the Bill ; I only wish that I had seen as much ardent enthusiasm for the protection of the individual earlier this week. I notice that the Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household is nodding his head. I do not know whether he is nodding his head in agreement or whether he is nodding his head in appreciation of the irony of the situation. [ Hon. Members :-- "He is nodding off."] Ah, well, there we go. I reaffirm my enthusiasm for the measure, as long as it is given a good airing in Committee. I promise the sponsor of the Bill all my support.
Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton) : No hon. Member can have sat through this morning's debate without being deeply moved by the experiences of many of the speakers that have been so eloquently recounted--some serio-comic and some desperately serious, which I found very moving, such as the speech of the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms. Primarolo). As is well known, I have crossed swords with the press and the broadcasting media from time to time, but I have no personal axe to grind in the debate. My disputes with them were entirely outwith the ambit of the Bill. We must draw a firm distinction between the laws of libel and what they are designed to cope with and the mischief with which this Bill is designed to cope.
I am sure that all hon. Members agree with the aims and objects of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), to whom we must all be grateful for sponsoring the Bill. Article 8 of the European convention on human rights provides for precisely the kind of result that my hon. Friend wishes to be achieved, but it does so in more generalised terms. Article 8 says that everybody has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.
Freedoms of a similar kind have been protected in English law for centuries. There is freedom of the person
Column 1337from physical attack, as the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) pointed out. It includes causing somebody to fear that he is about to be hit. That is already covered by the criminal law. There is also freedom to enjoy our property without molestation and free from invasion from without. In an eloquent speech in this House 250 years ago, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, said :
"The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail--its roof may shake--the wind may blow through it-- the storm may enter--the rain may enter--but the King of England cannot enter--all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement."
The law of this country, both the statutory and the common law as it has developed throughout the centuries, has protected private individuals against unwarranted incursions into their privacy in respect of their physical assets and persons. The time is now upon us when we should extend that protection to private life.
That view is shared by the Press Council, which in its 1976 annual report said :
"The publication of information about the private lives or concerns of individuals without their consent is only acceptable if there is a legitimate public interest overriding the right to privacy." That is precisely what the Bill is designed to achieve. Several hon. Members have pointed out that the Press Council, as an exercise in self-regulation, has manifestly failed. This morning we have heard of countless examples of the press acting like a pack of ravening hounds, setting itself on almost defenceless individuals and tearing them to pieces. The heartless, pitiless and merciless individuals who have been responsible for some of these excesses in many ways deserve our pity. How they sleep at night knowing what they have done, Heaven knows.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) pointed out, the former chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen, has said that he is sick at heart at the Press Council's failures and the revelations that have exposed people to hurt. Not all journalists today are quite as brazen as some who have treated the Press Council with contempt in years gone by. Mr. John Gordon, a former editor of the Sunday Express, when threatened by a report on him to the Press Council for failure to publish a justified factual correction, said this to his correspondent :
"You can report me to the Press Council, Madam Tussaud's, the Society for the Protection of Sputniks, NATO, UNESCO or the Dancing Dervishes' Association as you wish. May you enjoy yourself." That is a fairly robust rejection of the Press Council and the protection which it is supposed to offer readers.