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House of Commons

Friday 3 February 1989

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


Licensing (Low Alcohol Drinks)

Mr. Conal Gregory presented a Bill to facilitate the sale of alcoholic beverages with low alcohol content : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 April and to be printed. [Bill 58.]

Sunday Trading (Reform)

Mr. Steve Norris presented a Bill to reform and regulate hours of trading on Sundays : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 14 April and to be printed. [Bill 60.]


Mr. Roger King presented a Bill to introduce a national lottery ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 April and to be printed. [Bill 61.]

Animal Protection

Mr. Greg Knight presented a Bill to extend protection to wild animals and domestic pets ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 28 April and to be printed. [Bill 62.]

Right of Silence

Mr. Kenneth Hind presented a Bill to abolish the right of silence of suspects in a police station : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 May and to be printed. [Bill 63.]

National Service

Mr. Nicholas Soames presented a Bill to set up National Service for young people : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 July and to be printed. [Bill 64.]

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Orders of the Day

Right of Reply Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.36 am

Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie) : I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before going into the substance of my speech, it is appropriate to thank those who have assisted me with the Bill. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), who introduced the Bill last year and thus pioneered the way, and to Mr. Frank Allaun, who introduced such a Bill in the past and has struggled for the concept it embodies for years. If it will not damage his political career or mine, this week, I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who has also done valuable work on the right of reply in the past.

I pay tribute also to the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, which has given me substantial assistance in introducing the Bill. I thank my sponsors, who come from all parts of the House--and particularly those with a journalistic background. They include hon. Members who would not have introduced such a Bill in the past, in the hope that voluntary methods would work, but have been convinced by deteriorating standards in some sectors of the press that the Bill is necessary.

I start by referring to two cases, both of which feature Mr. Robert Maxwell. On 2 December 1988, a headline in the Glasgow Herald read : "Guardian pays Maxwell damages." In The Guardian on 1 April 1986--and I did not choose the date--a headline stated "Maxwell follows Murdoch behind the wire."

The article argued that it was hypocritical of Mr. Maxwell to criticise Mr. Rupert Murdoch for the measures taken by Mr. Murdoch's companies at their Wapping premises when Mr. Maxwell, it was alleged, had taken similar measures himself.

After a considerable period, a statement appeared saying that it was wrong to draw a comparison between two very different situations. To Mr. Maxwell's credit, he donated the damages paid to him to the National AIDS Trust. The point I make is that those who control the press are not all happy to tolerate the robust comments of other newspapers ; they seek redress themselves. A similar story appeared in the Glasgow Herald, in which a former Scottish Conservative MP, Mr. Michael Hirst, attacked Mr. Robert Maxwell over his treatment of the work force.

The story said :

"What cannot be the acceptable face of management, is to bluster around sacking, re-engaging, and sacking again employees who have given years and years of loyal service. This creates desperate insecurity among the families of those who work in these newspapers. How can a workforce be expected to show loyalty and co-operation when they are the victims of irrational and dictatorial demands by the proprietor?"

Some time later in the Glasgow Herald, Mr. Hirst said : "Mr. Hirst wishes to make it clear that comments which concerned Mr. Robert Maxwell, were not intended to be a criticism of Mr. Maxwell's personal integrity and apologises if his remarks were so construed."

Newspaper proprietors are keen to go to court to rectify damage which they see as having been done to them. One

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might be struck by the moderation of Mr. Hirst's comments and those in The Guardian compared with some of the statements about people made in the press.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Has my hon. Friend noticed the almost complete absence of reporters in the Press Gallery this morning? It is as if there is a conspiracy of silence so that the public will not get to know about the Bill. That is the attitude of the press.

Mr. Speaker : Order. The Press Gallery does not come into this issue.

Mr. Worthington : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I failed to notice what I am not allowed to see, but if I had been allowed to see it I would have seen it.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Tim Renton) : It is fair to tell the hon. Gentleman that three of the national papers have long leaders about the Bill. There is extensive coverage in this morning's press.

Mr. Worthington : I am astonished that the Minister has had such a sleepless night ; that must be the case if he has had time to read the newspapers.

I shall now deal with a typical story from The Sun. In the issue dated 20 January there is a headline which says, "Apology : the Navy and drugs". The apology says :

"On February 10, 1987 we published an article entitled HMS Junkie' in which we alleged that certain members of the Royal Navy, whom we named, had been involved in taking and dealing in drugs. We now recognise that these allegations"--

seven naval ratings are then named--

"were totally unfounded and that those men have never had any involvement with drugs.

We would like to sincerely apologise to them, and to the Royal Navy, for those false allegations and for any distress and embarrassment caused."

That apology is on page 16 of the newspaper and deals with a story published on 10 February 1987.

It was difficult to find a copy of The Sun for 10 February 1987, but with the invaluable assistance of the Library I managed to do so. The headline of the story says, "drug parties on the ocean wave". I shall not read the whole story, but it mentions HMS Ark Royal, HMS Juno, HMS London and the minehunters Wilton, Hubbertson, Iveston, Bronington and Bossington. It is alleged that these are "ships of shame".

It would certainly be of interest to the public if Her Majesty's Navy had at the helm people who were crazed with cocaine, hashish or other drugs. However, it is unforgiveable that the story seems to be based entirely on the account of one disaffected seaman. There seems to be no evidence of any checking and the story names

"seven shameful sailors our source says have been involved in the Royal Navy's drug dealing scandal :".

Although the ratings are named, there are no details of any allegations.

It is unforgiveable that, for nearly two years, the integrity and honour of those naval ratings have been slurred. Clearly, the ratings first had to persuade the Navy that the allegations were untrue, and they would certainly have been subjected to considerable investigation by the Navy. Then they would have had to persuade the Navy to

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take up their case. The Navy against Rupert Murdoch is a fair fight, but seven naval ratings on their own against Rupert Murdoch is not a fair fight.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth) : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman intended but has omitted to tell us on which page of The Sun the original article was published. How much of the page did the article take up, and what prominence did the newspaper give to it?

Mr. Worthington : I regret that I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's first question because all that I can find is a photocopy from a newspaper library. Unfortunately, the photocopy does not contain the page number. However, the story is given considerable prominence. It took nearly two years for a meaningless retraction to appear on page 16 of The Sun.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : I am interested in the two -year interval that the hon. Gentleman mentions. Presumably a full inquiry had to take place and representations had to be made to the newspaper or the Press Council. That would take some time. How would the Bill speed up the process? To my mind the Bill merely seeks to extend the time during which people can make complaints through the various channels that will be open to them. Like our ombudsman system, the whole thing could become clogged because of too many applicants.

Mr. Worthington : A newspaper would be challenged to produce evidence. If it failed to produce that evidence, which The Sun clearly failed to do over two years, it would have to give speedy and similar prominence to a right of reply by the people who had been defamed. The Bill refers to the time scales involved. The Bill does not seek to replace the courts, because people could still go to court--if they have the resources. The Bill would give what is admittedly a second-class form of law to the great majority of people who currently have no protection from the law.

The Bill's provisions are different from existing laws, in that it does not cover broadcasting ; there are two reasons for that. Hon. Members will be aware of the difficulties about time for private Member's Bills. I know that major changes in broadcasting are envisaged, and the Minister will probably say that, given the legislation proposed for next year, the Government would not want my Bill to go in ahead of it.

The other change from previous proposed legislation is that my Bill is simplified to refer only to factual inaccuracies. There might be difficulties because of misrepresentation, partiality or omission, which are difficult to deal with in the framework. That increases the Government's difficulty in rejecting the proposal.

Mr. Patrick Ground (Feltham and Heston) : How does the hon. Gentleman's remedy compare with the existing remedy of complaint to the Press Council? He accepts that his remedy only corrects an inaccuracy and that that may be part of a much wider complaint.

Mr. Worthington : I am grateful for that intervention. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be happy if I deal with it later. I have quite a full section on the Press Council. I hope to be able to answer his query then.

When will the Minister recognise that self-regulation is not working? What excesses will have to occur before the Government say that they must do something about this? What has been so striking in preparing the Bill is that no

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one now says that there is not a huge problem. What is the problem, and why are the proposals to refer to the Press Council so inadequate?

A market problem is at the base of the issue. After the domination of television--and television is the major means by which people get information about the world--newspapers have had to choose between news, analysis and entertainment. Some have chosen entertainment. Some newspapers such as The Sun and the News of the World have shown that they can be extremely popular and successful in terms of readership by going down market. By following that commercially successful route, they are putting obligations or pressures upon other newspapers to do the same. That means that papers require a diet of ever more outlandish stories, featuring familiar topics such as royalty, sex, soap stars, and so on.

To attract readers, one has to be ever more outrageous. The logical outcome of that pursuit of readers and outlandish stories has now appeared, and it is called Sunday Sport. We used to have the old dictum that "dog bites man" is not a story. "Man bites dog" is a story, and now the logical outcome of that is "man has baby". It is difficult to see how much further one can go in an attempt to find a story.

Because they are newspapers and not comics, they must use real people. I am told that adults on the Tokyo underground read comics. Adults on the London Underground read tabloids--not all the tabloids, but some tabloids--with stories about real people.

Fact is expensive to produce. Fiction is cheaper. In the market war there is a new meaning to the old phrase "necessity is the mother of invention". People are now being used as bait to get more readers. It is right that newspapers should compete in the market. No Opposition Member would argue that they should do anything other than compete. But the Minister himself said last year that even in a free market it is wrong that the press should be able to defame with impunity. That is happening at the moment, and we must change the rules. The market is impelling newspapers to behave in that way. They have chosen a style that sells newspapers. There is no way that they will stop that style because of a future sermon by Louis Blom-Cooper QC. It will be a good, estimable sermon from a man whom I deeply respect, but it will have no impact on market forces.

Kenneth Morgan, the director of the Press Council, has admitted that the Press Council and its work has been put at risk not by extreme politicians of Left and Right but by the conduct of the press itself. The tabloids are in a circulation war driven by market forces. We must change the nature of that market.

If papers invent news--lie about people--then, and only then, must people be given a right of reply with the same prominence. That would considerably lower the appeal of such newspapers, but it is by the decision of those newspapers if the right of reply is printed. Many newspapers get their stories right and practise good journalism. Those which invent stories about people do so because of incompetence or malevolence, not because they are honourable pursuers of the traditional and important role of the fourth estate in seeking to expose inadequacies in society.

Hon. Members might say that the press will learn its lessons from recent damages in cases in which juries have shown their disgust. The Elton John case award was £1 million. I refer also to the Carmen Proetta case, the Queen,

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and, going back a little now, the Jeffrey Archer award of £500,000. Such people can use the courts because they have resources behind them. There is now a great risk that papers will realise that it is too expensive to attack those with resources, and will turn more on the defenceless, and ask "Is this person able to sue?"

They already do that. In my research for the Bill I was shocked by how often I heard the expression "you cannot libel the dead". People wrote to me about the distress which the demolition of the reputation of their loved ones had caused them. We are seeing simply the worst kind of bullying journalism. Not only the dead but the majority of people in this country fall outside the protection of the laws of defamation.

At the moment, all we have is the Press Council. No one with money and sense would use the Press Council, because there is an alternative route. I say that because the Press Council is owned by newspaper proprietors, and half its membership comes from the newspaper world. But that does not include journalists from the National Union of Journalists who, as a vote of no confidence some years ago, withdrew from the Press Council. It has never worked properly. It disobeys the fundamental rule of justice that the judge or jury should be distant and impartial and should not be connected with those who bring forward a case.

The Press Council's first legitimate objective is to defend press freedom. It cannot also be the body that defends people against the press. I could not propose the abolition of the Press Council. The Press Council has a legitimate role to defend the press or lay down decent standards of conduct for journalists, but it cannot be the body that protects those who are abused by the press. Because of its methods, the Press Council is massively flawed.

Mr. Renton : I agree that the withdrawal of the NUJ from the Press Council was an important but retrograde step. Has the hon. Gentleman seen the letter from the docklands branch of the NUJ that appeared in The Times on 27 January, which not only advocated the return of the NUJ to the Press Council but said that NUJ membership of the Press Council would be debated by the union's delegate meeting in April, proposed by the docklands branch and representing many journalists on national newspapers?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : That is the Wapping branch--the Sky pilots' branch.

Mr. Renton : Perhaps that is the answer.

Would the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) like Labour Members who are members of the NUJ to use their influence to persuade the NUJ to return to the Press Council? There is clearly some movement in that direction.

Mr. Worthington : The Press Council would be strengthened by the presence of the NUJ, but I doubt whether that would strengthen the Press Council's adjudication role. The structure of the Press Council is fundamentally flawed, and while the presence of journalists on it might be welcome, it would not remedy those flaws.

In 1988, the Press Council received 1,395 complaints, 888 of which were withdrawn. I am convinced that the major reason for that withdrawal was lack of faith in the

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procedure. Not only were 888 complaints withdrawn, but 228 were disallowed ; well over 1,000 of the 1,395 complaints made did not come before the Press Council. A mere 4 per cent. of complaints were upheld.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : Is my hon. Friend aware that the Press Council goes to some lengths to persuade people to withdraw their complaints? Sometimes people have not withdrawn complaints voluntarily but have been given many reasons why they should do so. The 78 or so cases that were successful is a large increase compared with four or five years ago, when the figure was seven, eight or nine. That change occurred only because of the pressure brought about by measures such as the one that my hon. Friend is proposing.

Mr. Worthington : I was unaware of the efforts that the Press Council made to persuade people to withdraw complaints.

Mr. Ashton : I have been before the Press Council, losing one case and winning another--somebody took me to the Press Council and I took them before it. People tend to believe that they will have an interview at the Press Council. That is not so, because they have to write evidence, receive it and write back. It involves typing many thousands of words, which the average person in the street has not the secretarial help to do.

Mr. Worthington : That leads directly to my next point. The Press Council does not investigate itself ; it merely passes

correspondence. Some newspapers deliberately refuse to reply promptly. That is not only my view but that of the outgoing chairman of the Press Council, Sir Zelman Cowen. He said :

"Editors and those working with them must respond quickly to Press Council procedures on complaints. There are too many cases of delayed response, some of them quite disgraceful, and this contributes significantly to delays in adjudication."

What other faults are there in the Press Council's procedures? If one complains to the Press Council, one must sign a waiver saying that one will not take legal action. Newspapers have all the legal assistance they require, but the complainant cannot be represented by a lawyer. An oral hearing can be allowed at the request of newspapers, but not at the complainant's request. Above all, the Press Council has no teeth, only moral authority. I confidently predict that the Minister will say that we should wait for the new chairman to put these things right, but he has already said that he wants no teeth for the Press Council.

The Press Council has existed for 35 years. In 1962, a Royal Commission on the Press said that either the Press Council should reform itself as a matter of urgency or the Government should step in to establish a statutory body. In 1977, another Royal Commission said :

"It is unhappily certain the the Council has so far failed to persuade the knowledgeable public that it deals satisfactorily with complaints against newspapers."

It will be difficult for the Minister to convince us that tomorrow will be the answer ; ma nana wears off after a while.

In 1973, some editors said that the Press Council was feared, respected and obeyed. Today, it is not feared, respected or obeyed. The part remedy must be a statutory right of reply, with no ifs, buts, by your leave, or by

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permission of the editor. If a newspaper tells untruths about someone, he should have the right to have it corrected by the same newspaper, with the same prominence. I wish to stress that I am convinced that this will be preventive, and that newspapers will be more careful. Many of them will be completely unaffected by this legislation. It is clear from complaints to the Press Council, which are only the tip of the iceberg, that many newspapers do not bother the Press Council and give rights of reply.

I can foresee no future in newspaper-appointed ombudsmen. The job must be distinct and objective. The ombudsman must be distanced from the body against which a complaint is made. It lacks credibility for newspapers to appoint their own managing director as their ombudsman. This is not window dressing, but shows the cynicism and depths to which some standards have sunk.

Some ombudsmen appointments have more credibility. The Times of India recently appointed an ombudsman--the former Chief Justice of India. It agreed that it would abide by his decisions, and his remit includes even the news that was not printed. Its editor hopes that his paper will be run so successfully that the ombudsman will not be necessary.

Many journalists will welcome the Bill. It has been striking in preparing the Bill that, after I have given interviews, journalists have said, "I hope it succeeds." They are conscious of how difficult it is to work within a framework in which the editor or proprietor is not seeking the truth but asking the journalist to find a story. The Bill is against not good, investigative journalism but false accusations. We are in favour of investigative journalism when the facts have been checked and corroborated.

The Bill is a modest measure that follows the example of other countries : my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) will deal with that aspect later. It deals only with factual inaccuracies.

It is interesting that in 1985 the Guild of Newspaper Editors said that there were difficulties about issues such as misrepresentation. It said that factual errors may be speedily established and remedied. Let us not hear it said that the Bill is not workable. It is an attack not on press freedom but on those few proprietors and editors who abuse their power. It is an extension of press freedom, whereby the wrongly accused can answer back, and in future that will be regarded as an essential civil right.

Another feature of the Bill is to set up a press commission. The Press Commission would have 21 members and would be set up in the way that we set up many tribunals. It would hear cases in which there is a dispute between an editor and a complainant. It would be independent. I see it as a relatively small body, but its size, once again, would depend on the newspapers. If the body had work to do, it would have the staff to do it ; if there was no work, it would have no staff. The system will be self- regulating. If the newspapers behave, they will not have to go to the Press Commission. The Bill also provides for a right of reply adviser, for the reasons described by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton). Many of the people who complain to the Press Council are not lettered, accustomed to go to court or to deal with official bodies. It is important that such people should receive assistance in the preparation of their case as a good piece of consumer

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legislation. It is also important that the right of reply adviser should be separate from the adjudication function of the Press Commission so that it is clear that there is objectivity. Another feature of the Bill is that the rectification of the inaccuracies of an original statement should be given prominence in a newspaper and that there should be speed. We propose a maximum of 28 days. Other proposed legislation has suggested seven or 14 days and we recognise that that might be too tight, but we must have pressure to receive a reply quickly.

I shall deal fairly quickly with the other points in the Bill because I know that other hon. Members want to speak. Legal aid should be introduced for defamation cases. We shall hear a speech from the Minister,--I am sorry to be prescient, but I have heard it before--saying that that would be too expensive and that, apparently, in the constituencies of other hon. Members there are many people who are unhinged or unbalanced and who will use legal aid to spend public money in an irresponsible way.

I am perfectly willing to listen to the Minister explaining how a quick route in defamation cases can be introduced or that a screening device can be worked out for excluding meretricious cases. But it is unacceptable in a free democracy that 70 per cent. or 80 per cent. of the population have no redress under law. If the Government say that they cannot accept legal aid for defamation cases, they are saying that we live in a society that excludes the majority of people from legal redress in defamation cases.

Mr. Garry Waller (Keighley) rose--

Mr. Alistair Darling (Edinburgh, Central) rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : I call the hon. Member for Keighley.

Mr. Darling rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : I beg pardon. To whom was the hon. Gentleman giving way?

Mr. Worthington : To my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), but I have no prejudice against the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller).

Mr. Darling : Is my hon. Friend aware that when anybody applies for legal aid, no matter what the subject, he has to establish probable cause, so that if someone sought legal aid to raise an action for defamation, he would have to satisfy the legal aid committee that he had probable cause? That screening would stop vexatious or frivolous complaints. There is no reason, therefore, why legal aid should be denied in this category when in many cases, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has rightly said, it is a case of David against Goliath, in which the odds are heavily stacked in Goliath's favour because David does not have the stones to throw.

Mr. Waller : I agree with the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) that it is unsatisfactory that such a large proportion of the population should be disqualified from bringing defamation cases because of financial circumstances. But it is correct to say that Governments of both parties have been reluctant to embark on the step he has suggested because of the cost. Has the hon. Gentleman considered the Green Paper on contingency fees that was produced recently by

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the Lord Chancellor's Department? Does he agree that contingency fees might be one acceptable way not only to screen out those cases where there is no basis for going to court, but to proceed without considerable costs falling on the public purse?

Mr. Worthington : I am grateful for that intervention. There are ways of solving the problem. For the Government to say that they are willing for the majority of people to have no legal redress is simply inadequate. I hope that the Minister will give some deep thought to that issue, because many hon. Members recognise that the present law is wholly inadequate in that respect. For the Minister to say, "We can't afford it," or, "Public funds can't be made available for that purpose," is a deeply inadequate reply.

Clause 9 is included on the assumption that the rest of the Bill is passed. It is recognised that, at present, some of the awards for alleged damage are frankly excessive. A growing body of opinion is upset about the amount of damages given to some "public" figures compared with the damages received in criminal damage cases or for industrial injuries. At present, the only deterrent for defamation is the amount of damages that juries are handing out. If the law were rectified and the Press Commission were established, there could be a case for saying that judges should decide the amount of damages. Clause 9 is dependent on the rest of the Bill.

I hope today that the Minister, in his cheery way, will not give us the Home Office's 35-year-old speech on the topic.

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