Previous Section Home Page

Column 565

of viewers of "Crossroads" has been very much greater than the number of votes that the Labour party ever gets at a general election.

10.59 am

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) : Those of us who have been participating in this longest running relay race are delighted that at long last my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) seems to be taking up the baton for the last stage and reaching the finishing post today. We sincerely hope so, because this has been going on for a long time. With the increasing evidence that a wide body of opinion wishes to see some such restraint placed on the press, it would be invidious if the House were to reject that strong public feeling.

As one who has both worked for the press and, at various times, suffered at its hands, I fully appreciate that in an industry where people are writing for that day's edition mistakes are occasionally made. Most are genuine errors because of the speed at which journalists are expected to work. With the growth of new technology, that speed has increased. I fully understand that genuine mistakes are made while writing quickly for that day's edition.

Today I had the misfortune or perhaps the good fortune to pick up The Sun. It is not usually my first choice of reading, but it was drawn to my attention that there was a full-page editorial on The Sun speaking its mind. It is headed, "Your right to know". There is a cartoon with a three quarters naked body and a sign up saying, "Minister of Bonking" with Big Ben in the background. Obviously, The Sun photographer is placed at exactly the right spot. The caption reads :

"Why we will fight the hypocrites and humbugs of society." The suggestion is that Members of Parliament are particularly interested in protecting their own good name and that the Protection of Privacy Bill last week, which was unfortunately defeated, and today's Bill are simply ways that they have put forward to protect their good name. All hon. Members can discount that. We are perfectly capable of protecting ourselves. We are speaking for the vast number of people who are wholly unable to protect themselves against the excesses, particularly of the tabloid press.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : As the hon. Lady is not a regular reader of The Sun , did she notice how well it protected itself at this time last week? Immediately following the debate on privacy when The Sun was savagely criticised for specific examples from all directions, its response was to exercise a curious right of silence and not to allow a single word of the debate to appear in its columns the following day.

Mrs. Clwyd : The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I thank him for drawing our attention to that omission.

Again, today, The Sun has omitted to explain what this debate is about, although today's editorial is about the right to privacy. It is worth reading some of its more hypocritical lies. It states : "So what about the Sun? Do we make mistakes? Of course we do. Sometimes they are our own fault. Sometimes we are deceived by liars and phoneys.

And by God do we pay for them!

Column 566

Whatever the cause, we accept full responsibility for any inaccuracy in the columns of this newspaper. We try to put things right as fully and quickly as possible.

To help do this better in the future we have appointed an independent Ombudsman to investigate complaints. The Sun publishes around 20,000 news items a year. They produce a handful of libel suits."

The Sun wholly omitted to mention that few people can take out libel suits. That is our point today.

Four years ago I was forced to take out a libel action against Private Eye . Had I been able to get a quick retraction of the inaccuracies which appeared, I would never have embarked on the long action against it. It took two years and a considerable sum before I got a retraction and, naturally, compensation. But that never fully compensates for the damage that such an attack does to the person involved and his or her immediate family. Most people want a quick retraction. They do not want to go through the pain and trauma of a libel action if that can be avoided. The whole point of the right of reply is a quick retraction of the inaccuracies that have appeared. The Sun 's suggestion that a libel action is open to everyone who feels maligned by The Sun is a distortion of the truth. It is that paper which today is guilty of hypocrisy and humbug, not Members of Parliament who are attempting to do something about an intolerable situation. The editorial ends :

"For the Sun's part we shall fight to stay exactly as we are. It is not just our struggle.

It is the struggle of all those concerned for freedom in Britain." We all know what sort of freedoms The Sun believes in--the freedom to attack innocent people without giving them the chance to reply unless they take out an action for defamation.

I have the dubious distinction of having been both a journalist and a Member of Parliament--the two most derided professions in Britain. I read a nice piece of doggerel by Humbert Wolfe which is worth repeating :

"You cannot hope

To bribe or twist

Thank God the

British journalist

But, seeing what

The man will do

Unbribed, there's

No occasion to."

While I would defend the majority of members of the National Union of Journalists, a growing number of journalists are forced, for one reason or another, for example, pressure from proprietors who want to increase sales, to denigrate the standards of their profession. Like my hon. Friend, last year I attempted to introduce a right to reply Bill. We never had the opportunity even to debate it in the House, but there was much opportunity to debate it outside. I wrote to all local newspapers asking people to write to me if they had examples of the way the press had treated them or of not having replies printed to correct inaccuracies. I received hundreds of letters from people all over Britain, giving examples of how they felt they had been maligned, ill treated or unfairly presented. They were not from Members of Parliament, business men, big organisations or powerful people, but from ordinary people who felt that they had not been given a fair deal.

The examples are good, but I do not want to cite them by name because these people have suffered enough. One man lost his business, home and reputation, and was forced to make 250 employees redundant after a television

Column 567

news story attacked the product that his company supplied. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that we have legislation that forces broadcasters to be more responsible. Sales plummeted by 70 per cent. overnight. People refused to pay for work completed and the man received countless demands from past customers to take back the work done. The result was disastrous ; a lifetime's work destroyed, he said. He took his complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. It was upheld, but the result was a tiny correction at the back of one of the broadcasting magazines a year later. Five years after the event, the news story's claims have been shown to be groundless.

Another case concerns a family from Wales who were shocked and deeply distressed after they saw the headline of a news story reporting the inquest into the death of a son's common law wife. They felt that the heading

"Divorcee 34 dies after Drink and Drugs Session"

was at best meaningless and irrelevant and at worst tantamount to a smear, which could only cause great pain to those closest to her who were already suffering inconsolable grief. The coroner found no evidence that the woman, who died from a combination of anti-depressant drugs and a small quantity of alcohol, had intended to take her own life. The family's letter of complaint to the local newspaper was printed, despite being marked "Private."

There are countless similar cases that I could recount, but let me take a few lines from some of the hundreds of letters that I received last year :

"I think the Bill is of considerable importance and long overdue in the light of the quite appalling depths to which much of the tabloid press has sunk."

"I support absolutely--right up to the hilt--your efforts to obtain redress for everyone (rather than those with the money to buy it.)" These quotations come from individual letters :

"The introduction of such an Act would be a democratic step forward, putting us in line with many other western countries." "The Haemophilia Society is particularly concerned about the quality of reporting, especially with reference to AIDS. We therefore welcome any attempts at a Right of Reply."

"A statutory Right of Reply would do a great deal to break down the current dominance of the media by restoring equally important democratic rights to those who are reported about and to the consumer."

"The Press Council doesn't have the teeth it should have. When it comes down to it fair play is simply something that is at the discretion of editors. Sometimes you get it, more often you don't." "The Press Council in my considerable experience is totally unhelpful and unresponsive to the individual complainant and is wholly geared up to treat the Press with advantage."

Mr. Roger King : I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady, but I am not clear about how the Bill will put those problems right. Those reports will still appear in newspapers and they will still cause pain and hardship, if they are inaccurate. It will take some time before any redress appears in the press, by which time the damage will have been done. Surely we should aim at improving the standards of journalism in the first place, which must mean beefing up the Press Council instead of having recourse to all this additional red tape.

Mrs. Clwyd : The hon. Gentleman is determined to be King Canute this morning. He is ignoring all the arguments for change that have been put forward. There is an overwhelming feeling that the Press Council cannot

Column 568

do what it was set up to do, that it cannot protect the ordinary consumer. If the hon. Gentleman has not learnt that lesson, he has not been listening to the debate.

Mr. Ashton : Is it not a fact that the thought of having to print two or three pages of letters replying to allegations and having to clutter up newspapers with replies will be a severe deterrent to any editor once the Bill becomes law?

Mrs. Clwyd : That is absolutely right. The aim is to obtain a swift reply. That is the whole point of the Bill. We want a swift reply to that which is inaccurate, and that is what the Bill would achieve. I can give another example to show how the Press Council dealt with a very serious complaint and how ineffective its ruling was. It concerns a professor at Oxford University, Professor Colin Blakemore, who was subjected to bomb scares and threats after the Sunday Mirror published an article that was found to be exaggerated and unfair. Professor Blakemore was subjected to a front page story and a centre page spread in the Sunday Mirror. The Press Council said that the Sunday Mirror article was exaggerated, unbalanced and unfair. During the year, or even longer, that it took for the Press Council to make its ruling, Professor Blakemore and his family were subjected to the most extreme vilification. Reporters camped on their front door step ; photographers with long lenses went into their garden ; they received obscene telephone calls ; all sorts of nasty things were posted through their letterbox. When the Press Councill finally published its ruling, it was to be found on page 39 of the Sunday Mirror, along with the gardening tips and the bingo. Unless one is interested in gardening and bingo, there is no way in which one would turn to page 39 of the Sunday Mirror. It was a deliberate attempt to suppress a very serious condemnation of that newspaper. I spoke to Professor Blakemore at the time and found that he was so incensed by the treatment of his complaint that he was considering taking out an action for defamation. However, he did not realise, as many other people do not realise when they go to the Press Council, that if one does not like the Press Council's ruling one can no longer take out an action for defamation. One's rights are waived. He was doubly incensed, both by the length of time that the Press Council had taken to rule in his case and by the fact that at the end of the day he received very paltry recompense for all the suffering that had been caused to him and his family.

After a further protest to the Sunday Mirror, it eventually published--in lower case print on the second page--the Press Council's ruling, but at no time did the Sunday Mirror apologise to Professor Blakemore for the distress that had been caused to him and his family.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie made a very strong case against the Press Council. My dealings with the Press Council, particularly with Ken Morgan, have been very amiable. I pay tribute to the considerable amount of work he has done for the Press Council over the years, and I know that it is much to his personal regret that the Press Council does not have more teeth. I wish that I had the same optimism as the Minister of State, Home Office. I suspect that he will exude the same optimism today--he will say that everything will be all right because the Press Council has a new chairman. The Minister has been telling us for some time that

Column 569

legislation will be introduced in response to the failure of the press adequately to regulate itself on a voluntary basis. I know that many Ministers have expressed their support, both in public and in private, for a Bill of this kind, and I am certain that if Conservative Members were allowed a free vote on this issue there would be overwhelming support for it.

I intend to deal briefly with the experience of other countries. In a conversation that I had with the Minister of State a year ago, I remember that he expressed reservations about the way in which the system was working in other countries. At least eight other European countries have the equivalent of the right of reply. The fear of the British press is neurotic. I have talked to the Guild of British Newspaper Editors and to the editors of national newspapers, both quality and tabloid, during the last 18 months. Their neurotic fear is that a legal right of reply would swamp newspapers in a tide of time and space-consuming complaints, but that fear is not borne out by the long experience of countries such as West Germany, where the system works perfectly well and does not impinge on the true freedom of the press to investigate, report and comment honestly.

Mr. Ground : I am aware from the last Royal Commission report that West Germany has operated a right of reply successfully for some years, but as the hon. Lady referred to other countries having operated such a right of reply successfully, will she tell us which other countries have done so?

Mrs. Clwyd : Certainly. They include Canada and the United States, where there is either a right of reply or an independent ombudsperson, and France. I shall illustrate my point later by explaining the experiences of those countries. It is regrettable that the Minister has not drawn on the experience of other countries during our previous debates--not even to argue against the right of reply--but I think that he will find that experience proves the opposite of the case that he puts.

In France, the right of reply for both private citizens and representatives of organisations has been enshrined in law since 1983. Under article 13 of the Press Freedom Act editors are required to insert, within three days of receipt, the replies of any persons named or referred to in a daily newspaper or periodical article, on pain of a fine. The reply must be inserted in the same place and type as the article to which it refers and there must be no alteration. During elections, the three-day limit laid down for insertions is reduced to 24 hours for newspapers.

Since 1975, the law in France has been extended to broadcasts on public radio and television, although it applies only to individuals, not to representatives of organisations. During the three years before 1979, the right of reply was accorded to only 19 people on television and 10 on radio. It could be said that to introduce a law that applies in only 29 cases is not a strong argument for that law, but the important point is that its supporters say that its very existence has probably stopped hundreds of such offences being committed on air.

In the Federal Republic of Germany, a right of reply is central to state press laws--and has been so since the time of Bismarck in 1871. Any person affected by a factual statement or printed work can send the editor a signed

Column 570

statement of reply within three months. The reply must appear in the same section and typeface as the original offending text and will be printed as a letter to the editor.

The largest selling newspaper in West Germany is Bild with a circulation of about 5 million a day. It is owned by Axel Springer, whose editorial policy is hostile to the Soviet Union and hawkish in relation to arms negotiations. However, despite that, the newspaper estimates that only 50 counter-statements are published in Bild each year. The magazines-- Der Spiegel and Stern --are both popular and report that they draw 80 demands for publication of a counter-statement each year, but that only 15 appear as such. About 20 are changed by mutual agreement and appear in the letters page and about 45 do not appear, either because the individual or organisation does not bother to pursue the issue once the publisher has refused to comply or because they lose the injunction procedure after taking the case to court.

In six West German states the right of reply has been adapted to radio. The reply must be broadcast in the same reception area and at an equivalent time as the original. As in the case of the press, the broadcasters are not swamped with demands for air time. Whatever the reason for the small number of complaints in France and West Germany, the figures should allay the fears of newspaper proprietors in Britain that there would be a flood of complaints if such a measure were introduced in this country.

As we know, the right of reply has been introduced many times as the subject of private Members' Bills and has been defeated every time. I appeal to the House to put right what is clearly a serious wrong in British society. No one wishes more than myself and, I am sure, all former journalists in the House, that newspapers would put the matter right themselves. But how much longer can we wait? I appeal to the Minister to take heed of the enormous feeling among the British public that they can no longer tolerate the excesses of especially the tabloid press, but also of some of the quality press. Broadcasters are certainly not excluded from that criticism. The growing problem of cynical and deliberate misreporting and misrepresentation and of the editorialising of phoney facts is too serious to be left any longer to the owners of the press in our country.

11.25 am

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest) : I am mindful of your plea for brevity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and recollect that Disraeli said, "When I am preparing for a five-minute speech, it takes me two weeks ; a ten-minute speech takes me three days, and a two-hour speech takes almost no preparation at all." I shall try to avoid that trap. In the previous Parliament I introduced a ten-minute Bill on the law of confidence to try to give some legislative weight to the recommendations of the Law Commission on the law of confidence. As co-chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, I have always maintained that, along with a strong freedom of information Act--I trust that the House will pass one one day-- there should be adequate protection for the individual citizen in relation to both his privacy and the accuracy of reports about him.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), not so much on his good fortune--I have always thought it odd to congratulate an

Column 571

hon. Member simply on the spin of a wheel or the dexterity of a Clerk's arm in drawing a particular number from a hat-- as on the cogent way in which he introduced his Bill.

The Bill reflects widespread concern, of which several examples of evidence have been cited. In my own approach to this I should like to bear on the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), who said that he is still sufficient of a romantic to believe that some of us have come to the debate with an open mind. I do not see this as whipped business--it is very much a matter on which hon. Members of all parties can be open minded and take their own view. We can do that because so much of what has been said is unexceptionable to many hon. Members. There are unarguably appalling examples in the popular press of cynical, unwarranted, cruel and damaging reporting. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) and other hon. Members have given illustrations of inexcusable and appalling reporting which, as we know emanates from one section of the press--but they are no more excusable for that. I have often thought that if there were any way in which the Post Office could be persuaded to withdraw the category of "registered newspaper" from a number of those journals and treat them as the comics they are, and if we could ensure that when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is considering extending VAT he draws a clear distinction between newspapers and comics and puts the latter-- The Sun, the Daily Star and the Daily Mirror --in that comic category, he would be doing us all a favour. However, unfortunately, that is not a precise enough definition to assist us today.

I should like to draw a distinction in the examples that have been given so far. Some are matters merely of value judgments by editors. It is often said that one will never lose money by under-estimating the taste of the American people. Whether or not the same applies in this country is not something I would want to discuss with my constituents. Suffice it to say that in our endeavours to restore accuracy, we should never confuse our arguments for that with the right of editors to make value judgments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury, who, sadly, is not in his place--but I do not criticise him for that--made a jolly amusing speech, in which he cited the way the popular press confuses the characters in soap operas with the real life actors who portray them, and how they interweave reality and fantasy in a way that is nonsensical, if amusing. However, provided such newspapers do not stray into printing inaccuracies and telling lies, people should be free to buy them if they choose.

The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) should be careful when he gives the recent example of the stories carried on the front pages of two tabloid newspapers concerning the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) because, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me saying so, that story was, as far as I know, factual ; secondly, it taught me something that I did not know before--that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby held an Opposition post. Those stories also made interesting observations about the Leader of the Opposition's rather schizophrenic attitude to the management of his Front Bench team and to the interface between that team and the free market. The Sun and Daily

Column 572

Mirror did us all a political service by drawing out the important lessons to be learned from the unfortunate episode in question. I admit to having a love for a certain brand of Sunday journalism. Several marvellous examples of it have already been given. My favourite, which appeared in the News of the World many years ago, was a story headlined

"Nudist welfare man's wife runs off with Chinese hypnotist from Co-op bacon factory."

What I love about that item is that, far from confusing me, it tells the whole story in its headline. It also contained every single element that sells the News of the World. It was marvellous. If that is the kind of newspaper people want to buy to read with their Sunday lunch, so be it. That is not a matter for us, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members not to concern themselves with amusing but irrelevant examples of an absence of taste, questionable judgment and the interweaving of fantasy with reality that makes up so much of the bulk of the popular press.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : The hon. Gentleman's speech is amusing, and much of it is to the point. However, does he agree that newspapers such as the News of the World are often guilty of gross invasion of the individual's privacy when they print titillating gossip? Such items may be nothing more than passing fantasy to those of us who glance at them, but they can do lasting damage to families, and often to the children involved. I believe that, coupled with a right of reply, there should be a restriction on invasion of privacy by newspapers.

Mr. Norris : I can honestly tell the hon. Gentleman that there have been few occasions during my time in the House when I have found myself in complete agreement with him. However, this is one of them. I was sorry that the Protection of Privacy Bill did not succeed in getting a Second Reading. Such legislation, combined with a measure of statutory ground for the law of confidence to underwrite the extraordinarily inadequate legislation we already have relating to people's privacy, is essential.

The hon. Gentleman hits the nail on the head because, in discussing the Bill, we may overlook those occasions when the press publish something that is true but is none the less extraordinarily damaging personally to the individuals concerned, and where it must be plain that that damage far outweighs any notion of public interest that might be served by such disclosures. Goodness knows, right hon. and hon. Members are vulnerable enough to such practices--where what is of interest to the public must be distinguished from what is in the public interest. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) is right when he asserts that the right of privacy is so important, because that goes beyond factual accuracy, as defined in clause 1 of the Bill, and can touch on the argument that accuracy per se is not in dispute.

I believe that, so far, the whole House is in accord. I hope that we shall not hear any speeches seeking to present the complacent view that really there is nothing to worry about. I say to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) that she can be certain that no Conservative Member takes lightly the present state of the gutter press--which is what it so often invites itself to be called. In any event, I wish to advance the debate further than merely exposing the extent of the nonsense that is often published. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie posed the more important question of what remedies are available now that the problem has been identified.

Column 573

Reference has been made to the work of the Press Council. It is common ground between right hon. and hon. Members, and it is indefensible to argue otherwise, that, so far at least, the Press Council has proved singularly toothless. I cite as an example the Terry McCabe case involving The Sun, when it was clear that The Sun wholly and cynically disregarded the Press Council's findings--but it did worse than that. It reached the stage of rejecting the only authority that the Press Council has sought unto itself, which is the moral authority of its own pronouncements. The Sun said, in effect, "Fine--we understand all that the Press Council says--but the man is still a rogue," and so on. Such behaviour is insupportable. Given that there is no evidence--certainly not from the appointment of The Sun's own ombudsman--that that newspaper is changing its fundamental attitudes, one must question whether changes in the Press Council are likely to bring about the improvements that are needed.

Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper has an immensely difficult task. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie suggested that Mr. Blom-Cooper's words would be fine and his message cogent and one which the overwhelming majority of people would want to hear--and hoped that the press also would listen to it. However, the hon. Member was also right to introduce the important concept of profit. As long as the Press Council says it does not wish to impose financial penalties on offending newspapers, whatever chairman is imposed on the Press Council or invited to serve it--and Mr. Blom-Cooper may feel that it is an imposition--and however powerful may be that chairman's words, and no matter how frequently they are repeated, the Press Council's efforts will be as naught compared with the desire of newspaper proprietors to continue selling their salacious newspapers.

Mr. Roger King : My hon. Friend mentioned The Sun's appointment of its own ombudsman in rather dismissive terms. It may be a dismissive appointment, but as that ombudsman has only just been appointed, is it not reasonable to allow him a little time to see whether he has any teeth?

Mr. Norris : I acknowledge my hon. Friend's observation, and in a few moments I shall expand on some of the practical difficulties of implementing the Bill, which may mean that in the immediate future we shall have to hope that the reorganisation of the Press Council and unilateral endeavours of one kind or another by newspaper proprietors to put their own houses in order will produce improvements. I am somewhat cynical on both counts. As long as such rubbish sells newspapers there will be proprietors who will want--as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie acutely observed--to use fiction rather than truth because the stories are juicier, there is much more public interest and they sell more newspapers. We must consider what we can do about that.

What are the remedies? I have dealt with the Press Council, but there is also the law of defamation, which has not been much spoken about so far in the debate. Why is the law of defamation not used more? The first reason is time and the second reason is cost. I shall deal with both those matters. It is not necessarily important on Second Reading to go into the minutiae of a Bill. One of my reservations about the hon. Gentleman's Bill relates to the

Column 574

sheer impracticability of clause 4(4), which says that 28 days will be allowed for dealing with complaints. However, there is an escape section in the clause :

"unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so within that time limit."

That escape section would need to be deployed very quickly, or an army of officials will need to be appointed to the proposed Press Commission. This is not an easy matter and I fear that the Bill poses a dilemma about time. There is no qualitative test in clause 1, no qualification on triviality or seriousness and that flaw in the Bill would need to be rectified in Committee. If it is not, thousands of people will go to the Press Commission saying that they want an opportunity to put matters right. However, access will be restricted to cases in which a judgment is made by the commission about seriousness and the Bill may well exclude the very people who are worst affected personally and who most feel the emotional consequences of misrepresentation.

Mr. Worthington : We recognise that in the early stages of any Bill there is likely to be a test period, and that during that time there may be more complaints about the Bill than there are later when things settle down. Does the hon. Gentleman accept the Bill's prime intention, that when newspapers know that when they get things wrong they will have to print a reply, they will make an effort to get things right? That would staunch the flow of complaints to the Press Commission.

Mr. Norris : I shall try to answer the hon. Gentleman exactly because I have reached that matter in my speech. In endeavouring to fulfil the romantic desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) I did not approach this from a partisan standpoint. I am attempting a logical analysis. I recognise the accuracy of the description by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale of the green ink element. He amusingly described that in an article as the "white plastic carrier bag" phenomenon. We all know about constituents who arrive at the surgery with burgeoning bags of letters.

We all understand that phenomenon, and to some degree it is a rather sad fact of life. Many people believe themselves to be the subject of some grievance or other, some great wrong or injustice. I can see such people flooding to the Press Commission to ask it to put right what they see as a massively important grievance. Those people will have no difficulty whatever in defining the terms of clause 1(1) about the correction of "any inaccuracy in editorial material" affecting them. We are into that dangerous field of misrepresentation, partiality and omission. What is the truth? We have been asked to keep our speeches short, and if any hon. Member attempts to define truth he should bear in mind your sensible stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The clause sensibly attempts to deal merely with factual accuracy. That is commendable, but there is a lack of qualification of the degree of seriousness. If the clause is to have any import it will have to be revised. My hon. Friend the Member for Northfield was accused by the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) of making a Canute-like intervention. Canute's rather interesting and long-lasting exercise on the coast was to show his court the fallibility of a mortal king, but it is taken to convey the

Column 575

idea of trying to resist the irresistible. If we are not careful, the Bill's proposers may put themselves in the position of King Canute.

Mr. Roger King : I should like to hear my hon. Friend's views on a major issue. Will he consider investigative journalism and the reporting of accidents of which we have had so many recently, the last one being the M1 aircraft crash? The banner headlines that day might well have said, "Engine explodes", or "Engine failure causes accident". Does my hon. Friend think that, under the terms of the Bill, Pratt and Whitney would have been entitled to say in banner headlines the day after the M1 accident that the engine did not explode? That is how I understand the Bill and why I say that there will be problems if we allow it to proceed.

Mr. Norris : I hope that my hon. Friend will develop his argument if he is lucky enough to be called. The important issue that he raises is one of the reasons why I want to give the Bill a Second Reading. The Committee will have to do a great deal of work to resolve that matter.

Mr. Worthington : How could one possibly believe that, if a false headline accused Pratt and Witney of being responsible for a crash, Pratt and Witney would go to the press commission? It would go to the courts.

Mr. Norris : That allows me to move immediately to the final part of my speech. As I have said, there is an existing remedy for such cases. However, the difficulties with the remedy are temporal--I have dealt with that--financial. That is the simple risk that an ordinary citizen must take if he or she wishes to commit the massive funds that may be necessary to mount an action of defamation against a large international newspaper group.

The answer to the problem lies in the recent Green Paper on the reform of our legal services and the concept of the contingency fee. A litigant will go to his professional advisers and say, "I believe that I have an absolutely clear case in law. I do not have the resources to prosecute the case, but, if you are sufficiently persuaded by the evidence that I can lay before you, can we arrange for you to deal with this case on a contingency fee basis?" In simplistic terms, it is no win, no fee, which will minimise the risk to the litigant.

That achieves two objectives. First, it sifts the trivial and vexatious-- the green ink and the white plastic bag--from the serious. That is a welcome mechanism. Secondly, it allows a wronged person to have practical access to that important part of a newspaper proprietor's anatomy to which it is necessary to have access if one wishes to change facts and attitudes, and that is the area immediately adjacent to his pocket. Of late, with the Archer award, the Elton John award, the Koo Stark award and others, the courts have shown that they are prepared to deal with cynical trivialisation and lying. That is where the practical remedy lies.

I commend to my right hon. and hon. Friends, first, the idea that the Bill should be given a Second Reading, because it deserves one. We deserve to see whether some of the real difficulties in the Bill, which I am sure that its sponsor himself acknowledges, can be put right. Secondly, I ask my hon. Friends to press for the implementation of the Green Paper proposals so that litigants who currently

Column 576

do not have resources can have a mechanism by which they can take on the press barons and start rectifying the great wrongs that are currently being done to them.

Several Hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Having appealed for short speeches, I now appeal for shorter speeches.

11.52 am

Mr. Pat Wall (Bradford, North) : I support this modest and long overdue Bill. I shall say some serious things about this serious Bill, but I shall begin on a lighter note. The last time I debated the press was at the Oxford Union, where I moved a motion criticising the role of the British press. I say that with some embarrassment, because I do not think that that is a place where Left-wing Socialists should find themselves. It is a story against myself. Opposing me in the debate was a former Member of the House, the then editor of The Daily Telegraph, William Deedes. In the debate, I referred to the misreporting by The Daily Telegraph of a 1983 election rally that I addressed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot). The article referred to fighting that had broken out in the gallery at that meeting. My right hon. Friend will know, as I know, that no such thing took place, but it was given great prominence in The Daily Telegraph.

I telephoned and demanded a right of reply. I got as far as the assistant editor. Six months later, at a debate I flung the incident at Bill Deedes and demanded an answer. I got it. He said that he entirely accepted my version of the story, and that, at 10 o'clock on Monday morning, he would summon people to his office. "Heads would roll," he said. "At 12 o'clock," he said, "the NUJ chapel would call a strike and I would have to reinstate them."

I made my name in the city of Bradford in a discussion on the press. It concerns the National Union of Journalists and two cases that illustrate what this debate is about. To establish myself in the Labour movement in Bradford, I joined the Bradford trades council. We had a resolution from the NUJ dealing with a case in Brighton. It involved two foster parents who had cared for a young girl for several years. That resolution became a big issue in the press. A press campaign was waged to change the law on the rights of foster parents. That may have been correct. It was obscurely reported in the newspapers that the mother neglected the child and was completely irresponsible. In a serious paper we read of the life of the women who had been subject to enormous strain and problems. We certainly had two sides to the story. The other case was never put. The NUJ went to the Bradford trades council and demanded that the law be changed. I felt that it should be done in a more careful and considered manner. The chairman said, "Does everyone agree with that? Is it unanimous?" I said that I opposed the resolution.

I referred to a women called Mrs. Raum. She became involved in a mass media campaign. She was a landlady--a widow--who drew income from rent. She became a national hero in the popular press. It said that she had a terrible tenant who paid her only modest rents, would not accept a rent increase, and took her to the rent tribunal. The tenant's side was never put. The tenant was an east European refugee who came to this country as a victim of Hitlerism. He had a modest job as a waiter, working in a restaurant. He was hounded by the press and physically assaulted, his house was broken into, he was harassed at

Column 577

work, but his side of the story was never put. I raised the matter at the trades council. After discussion, the resolution was withdrawn.

That happened 20 years ago. That waiter was incapable of defending himself. The same was true of the mother who wanted her daughter back. People are hounded. They do not have the right to reply, and they have no means of reply. The situation is far worse today. I shall slightly upset my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), as I shall say a few words about the power of the press. Hon. Members do not want a succession of politicians dealing with their own personal experiences, but my family became the centre of press attention. It is an awesome, terrifying experience to have 50 people camped outside one's modest house in a small village. Those people terrified not only my family but the neighbours. Some people were camped outside all night. They thrust cameras through the windows and hounded my children. My son was badly beaten by Fascist cowards who could fight only on the basis of four to one. His jaw was fractured and he had to be put into hospital. My daughter's education was ruined because of the hounding that she received at school. My wife was spat at and refused service in shops. We received hate mail with razor blades sewn into envelope seals. I have received letters containing swear words and communications addressed to "the Trotskyist bastard, Bradford." It is a terrible experience for one's family to live through that. I am a politician and a member of a movement. I have some ability and some experience of how to reply. How much worse is that experience for an ordinary member of the public who is not used to conversing with the media, debating or expressing an opinion or is unable to turn to friends and allies for support? It is much more important that people have the right to reply in those circumstances.

I should like to make some criticism of the parliamentary lobby and the Press Gallery. One of the accusations that we often make is that journalists do not read clause 3 of the NUJ code of conduct--which says that they should check their stories--or other clauses in the code. How many stories emanate from correspondents talking to hon. Members not about hon. Members but about constituents? In the past, those stories have been taken as gospel and retold in the local press.

Some years ago, I attended a meeting in Newcastle. Over the previous four or five years, the only time that I had been to the north of England was to visit the firm Corning, which is better known to Sunderland as J. A. Jobling or perhaps to hon. Members as Pyrex heat-resistant glassware. I went there purely as part of my job and intended immediately to travel home. When I arrived, I found the television and radio, press, and accounts in the local press saying that I was part of a Left-wing plot to pinch the seat of an hon. Member in Newcastle, Gateshead or Sunderland. Following her bitter experience in 1982, my wife was not prepared to let this issue go. She phoned every editor and television and radio company involved. She tracked down the story to a lobby correspondent, and by using threats of going to the Press Council and of suing--we certainly could not have afforded to sue--we tracked down the lobby correspondent, who said "I got the story in good faith from a Member of Parliament and I will not disclose his name." I do not think that people have a right to such protection.

Next Section

  Home Page