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Mr. Flannery : To bring matters up to date, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) wants, some time ago I asked a Minister a perfectly civilised question about what had happened in Gibraltar. The following day in The Times --which has the same owner as The Sun --a huge cartoon appeared that showed me with a bottle of blood in my hands. On it was printed the word "Victim". It also showed my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), who had asked a perfectly ordinary question about Gibraltar. All hon. Members who ask similar questions are subject to that treatment. I shed a little blood in the last war and I would defend liberty in this country once again, as I did before.
Mr. Mullin : Whatever may be the intention behind incitement of that kind, we know the results. The results are violence and people are threatened. On 2 February 1982 the Daily Mail carried a cartoon depicting a courtroom scene in which the jury were garlanding with flowers a man who had been accused of beating up a train driver. I have gone into the matter in some detail because it is important to understand the kind of an effect that such stories can have. That story could be replicated, if properly documented, hundreds of times over. Anybody in this country who raises his head over the parapet on what appears to be an unpopular issue is liable to be on the receiving end of similar treatment.
I suspect that some hon. Members on both sides of the House--I do not say this by way of criticism, but it is more likely to happen to Opposition Members than it is to
Column 589Conservative Members--have been subjected to similar treatment. The people who control our media know that they have at their beck and call some very dark forces that can be unleashed at the drop of a hat and that can make a misery of the lives of anybody with guts. It does take guts, sometimes to raise one's head over the parapet.
Mr. Mullin : Forgive me. I have given way a couple of times and, as other hon. Members wish to speak, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), I am afraid that I cannot do so. I want in particular to accommodate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw.
We should be deluding ourselves if we thought that only The Sun and the Daily Mail were guilty. It is not just a handful of gutter newspapers that are involved. I recollect the attempt by the Evening Standard in an unscrupulous front page headline a year or two ago to link CND with the IRA. In a free country it should be possible to believe in the removal of nuclear weapons without being branded as a supporter of the IRA. That is a very modest ambition. No supporter of the removal of nuclear weapons from this country--I am glad to say that those supporters include a few Conservative Members--will complain if their views are debated robustly in the press, but they do not expect to find themselves associated with terrorists. Some of the best smears appear in The Times, which is also a Murdoch paper now but it was not always so. I recollect a regular smear. I recollect also that it cropped up during the debate on the Common Market referendum. A diary story appeared in The Times suggesting that one of the children of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was being looked after in the private wing of a hospital. What that had to do with the debate on the referendum God alone knows.
I recollect also that in 1981 at the time of the deputy leadership elections for the Labour party, The Times ran what affected to be a full- page profile of the three candidates. I should point out that the journalist who wrote the article was not responsible for the following incident. Indeed, he told me afterwards that a paragraph had been removed from his story and the following paragraph inserted. It affected to list the assets of the candidates and stated : "City sources speak of a Stansgate Trust registered with the Bank of Bermuda"
of which members of the Benn family were supposed to be beneficiaries.
That appeared in a full page article in The Times, but was not put there by the journalist who wrote the rest of the story. When I rang the Bank of Bermuda to check, it said that the story was not only not true but that nobody from The Times had telephoned the bank to find out whether there was such a trust. It proved extremely difficult to obtain a retraction from The Times and when it appeared, it was modest. I do not know the explanation of where that story came from to this day. Perhaps it should have been referred to in our recent debate about the security services.
When I first went to Saigon as a journalist to cover the Vietnam war, I was surprised to learn that the person who for years had reported from Saigon in The Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph under the name of John Draw was not John Draw, but Nguyen Ngoc Phac, a captain on the general staff of the Saigon army, responsible for press
Column 590relations. In case anyone could be in any doubt about that, I should add that he could be seen appearing at the Reuters office to file his copy, still in his uniform.
I was a young and naive journalist and when I got home I took that matter up with the editor of The Daily Telegraph, then Mr. William Deedes. After some delay I received a reply stating that it was true that Mr. John Draw was really Nguyen Ngoc Phac, but that the editor did not believe that he was an officer on the general staff of the Saigon army. However, The Daily Telegraph forgot its lie later because someone else wrote in, pointing out the same thing, and received a reply saying, "Of course, it is all true. It is old hat--we told Mr. Mullin about it years ago."
Mr. Mullin : It was a giant fraud perpetrated on the readers of The Daily Telegraph --a newspaper which claims the highest standards. I welcome the Bill although there are certain omissions. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw pointed out, there are no mechanisms for dealing with the last of those several examples, although I concede that there is a mechanism for dealing with the other examples. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) referred to cheque book journalism, with which at the moment there is no mechanism for dealing. Perhaps that will be dealt with in Committee.
The Bill is not the whole solution, but it is a step along the road towards a free press. However, in due course we must look at some wider issues, such as whether in a democracy it is right that most of what we see and read is controlled by half a dozen multinational companies or extremely wealthy citizens. Although that omission is not relevant to the Bill, I give notice that that subject must be dealt with in due course.
It may be for the convenience of the House if I now explain the Government's view of the Bill-- [Interruption.] Well, that paragraph is the same.
I agree with the extremely interesting remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris). There is little point in congratulating the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) merely on his success in winning the ballot, but I join hon. Members of all parties who have congratulated the hon. Gentleman warmly on the reasonable and moderate way in which he commended his interesting Bill to the House.
Today's debate on a Bill that will give the public the right of reply, to correct inaccuracies in the press or in broadcasts, may be described as the second round in a three-round boxing match between the House of Commons and the press. The first round was last Friday, when my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) failed by a mere two votes to get a closure and therefore a Second Reading for his Bill, which dealt with the intrusion of the press into the private lives of
Column 591individuals. Today's debate is the second round. If it ends in time--after the speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), that is less likely than it was--we shall enter the third and final round, with the Bill of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) to remove pornography from the press and the work place.
Everyone who has taken part in the debates on both Bills so far will agree that the fact that the House has devoted two consecutive Fridays to matters of the press is a healthy reminder to editors and proprietors of Parliament's close interest in press standards. As I said last Friday, I have great sympathy with those who complain about press hounding of individuals, be it by invasion of their private lives or by publishing wholly inaccurate remarks. The truism, "It must be true--it was in the papers "
is one that we all ridicule today, but the fact remains that if a comment appears in the newspapers many people remember it and may come to assume that it is true.
It would be wrong for the House, in its current and justified burst of indignation against the press, to think that this is a completely new area of concern. A friend in the press, knowing that I was to speak in last Friday's debate and today, kindly lent me a copy of a book entitled "The Life and Death of the Press Barons"--and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick, and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) used the phrase "the press barons" in his interesting contribution. That book brings home to me that, from the very beginning of popular journalism, there has always been a wish to increase circulation by publishing sensational and even prurient news.
"The Despatch" started in America in the 1830s, and its radical publisher gauged the tastes of an expanding market to perfection, with the promise that his newspaper would be
"a repository of all the gems and treasures, and fun and frolic, and news and occurrences of the week. It shall abound in police intelligence, in Murders, Rapes, Suicides, Burnings, Maimings, Theatricals, Races, Pugilism and all manner of accident by flood and field. In short, it will be stuffed with every sort of devilment that will make it sell."
Mr Renton : The truth is that in search of circulation, sometimes to pander to salacious interests, sometimes for power and to shake Governments, and sometimes for sheer devilment, ever since popular journalism started in the last century newspapers have regularly published stories that intrude on people's privacy and reputation. Such practices were not confined to the tabloids. As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South rightly reminded the House in his lengthy speech, The Times itself played a considerable part in the history of popular journalism. In the last century, its famous editor Delane claimed that it resembled the church in the middle ages-- "Enlightener of the people's consciences, a check against the abuse of power, a monitor against the vices."
That was Delane's boast. His tactics worked, and The Times sold twice as many copies as all its rivals put together. One must face the fact that the story today is not greatly different. Sales of The Sun and News of the World
Column 592soar, while those of more serious newspapers stagger. To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, their sins are scarlet but their papers are read.
Mr. George Walden (Buckingham) : I am interested in the historical perspective, which causes one to look at the future. Given that the printed media and broadcasting tend to influence one another, does my hon. Friend believe that the Broadcasting White Paper to be introduced next week will tend to raise or lower the standards of the British popular press?
Mr. Renton : My hon. Friend tries to lead me down an interesting path. I should like to follow him but we are to have a debate on Wednesday on the broadcasting White Paper, and it would be more convenient if I dealt with such matters then--if I am fortunate enough to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.
The question of the powers and responsibilities of the press has as long a history as the press itself. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said in his interesting speech that papers were becoming ever more outrageous so as to attract readers. I hope that I have got his words right. Standards change in books and magazines just as they change in newspapers. Many things are printed today in all three of those areas of the media that would have greatly shocked and surprised many people a generation ago. Because of the change in standards it is hard to find a test of obscenity that can keep up with the pace of the times. That was why two of my hon. Friends tried to redefine obscenity in private Members' Bills that failed to get the support of the House.
The question before us is whether standards have changed to such an extent that it is right to look beyond the self-regulation of the Press Council, with which I shall deal later, to a novel form of legislation. I think that we all agree that those of us in public life are prone to public agitation about press matters. To appreciate that, one has only to look at the history of Bills which sought to change this area of the law. There was a great deal of debate about that last Friday. In many cases we have only ourselves to blame. How many times has an assiduous Member sent the text of his remarks to a local paper, only to find that the well-crafted paragraphs of his beautifully structured argument are left out in favour of the unwitting double entendre in the opening sentence? A former hon. Member, making a serious point in which he believed passionately, once began by saying, "There's a lot of bloody fools out there--and they deserve representation ". Fortunately, I do not think that he took himself so seriously as to demand a right of reply to the columns of humorous coverage that ensued.
No one denies that a problem exists, and that the question before us is that of how to deal with it. Before I move to the general principles of the Bill I shall spend a few minutes dealing with the practicalities or impracticalities of what it proposes. This takes up the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest and in an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King). They spoke of the dangers of newspapers being flooded with trivialities. We have to consider seriously what could happen to the front page of a newspaper if the precise restrictions of the Bill were followed through. Clause 1(3) of the Bill says that when a person exercises his right of reply to correct an inaccuracy,
Column 593"The correction must be printed free of charge, it must be given the same prominence as the original item, and appear at the same place in the publication."
What would be the effect of that on our national press? I have with me a copy of yesterday's front page of The Times. The top headline says,
"Mitchell cannot work for Sky, says Labour leader".
In heavy one and a half inch print there is the headline, "Kinnock sacks top aide for taking TV job".
I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) in the Chamber and hope that he will catch your eye, Mr. Speaker. The third headline says,
" Hypocrisy and bigotry' anger Tebbit".
Those three headlines take up about eight inches of space. At least three people could demand a right of reply to that conjunction of headlines. First, the Leader of the Opposition could claim that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, with all due respect to him, was not a top aide.
Secondly, the Leader of the Opposition could claim that it was not because his colleague worked for Sky, the Murdoch channel, that he was sacked, but because as quoted lower down on the same page, "the sight of a senior Labour front bencher interviewing and attacking and generally trying to take apart Labour colleagues and policies was inappropriate and would totally confuse the viewers." I rather doubt that it would confuse viewers. I think that viewers are already utterly confused about Labour policies-- for instance on defence or the future of trade unions. The editor of The Times would be able to argue that part of his report was factually correct, but at least there would be a serious case for the Leader of the Opposition to argue that he should have the major headline in tomorrow's issue of The Times stating, "Mitchell sacked to keep Labour colleagues intact".
Then there is the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. He was a journalist with Yorkshire Television and the BBC. He is the author of several good books including "Can Labour Win Again" and "Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party". To him is attributed the reply on television that he did not belong to an organised political party, he belonged to Labour. He must have a case for demanding a right of reply. As for the hypocrisy and appalling bigotry which so angered my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), it is unclear whether that allegation applies to the leader of the Labour party or to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, who would surely want to clear himself of the possible accusation that it was he who was the appalling bigotted hypocrite.
I say this to the House in all seriousness because it is the type of consideration that the House must bear in mind. There is, finally, the position of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford. The third headline clearly implied that he was angered. Was he? He is one of the most prominent men in our party and he is well known for his calmness, his quiet nature, and his smoothness of behaviour. Having taken a job on the same current affairs programme as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, he may well wonder whether his own reputation will suffer as a result of the headline attributing anger to him. On the basis of the hon. Gentleman's Bill, one could expect three correcting headlines tomorrow morning--all on the front page of The Times and occupying a great deal
Column 594of space along the lines of, "Mitchell not allowed to savage Labour", followed by "Tebbit : I am never angry", and last, perhaps as a counterweight, "Hattersley allowed to take job with Maxwell".
Mr. Worthington : I am grateful to the Minister, who is fulfilling my prophesy about his cheeriness but irrelevance on this. Several issues are involved. Why did the Guild of British Newspaper Editors say in 1985 that factual inaccuracies would be easy for them to deal with whereas misrepresentation or partiality would not be easy? Why is it that in no country in which right of reply legislation has been introduced is there a scenario such as the Minister described? Why does no country want to get rid of right of reply legislation on the basis that it is unworkable?
Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman cannot dismiss my comments--which might be a little light-hearted given that it is a Friday afternoon--as not going to the heart of the problem. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) and the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) raised earlier the possibility of the right of reply being used to correct matters that are, in essence, trivial and not serious, but about which they felt deeply. I do not think that the Bill addresses that, and if it reaches Committee it should be closely examined. The serious principles of the Bill are one thing, but it is another whether the hon. Gentleman's proposals are practical.
Mr. Roger King : The scenario that my hon. Friend depicts may be worse than he suggests. The headlines retracting yesterday's headlines in The Times may appear not the day afterwards but in four or five week's time. By the time a complainant has gone to various committees and commissions and permission has been given to print a retraction, we would be reading revised headlines about something that happened months before.
There is a serious core to this subject. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale mentioned the disgraceful incidents following the Lockerbie accident. I have sympathy with those who have expressed dismay, not only in this debate, about the willingness of some editors to print ill-researched, factually inaccurate reports and their reluctance and subsequent great delay in printing corrections or retractions. We have heard many well-known examples of that in today's debate. Although we accept that the newspaper industry is competitive, competition should be able to take place without damaging lives, reputations and families through insensitive and misleading reporting.
The motives behind the Bill can be admired, but the subject does not lend itself to straightforward or uncontroversial legislation. We shall not oppose Second Reading, as we did not oppose the Protection of Privacy Bill last week. I assure the hon. Member for Cynon Valley that there is no question of the Government trying to whip votes on this.
The Government have a number of reservations about the philosophy of statutory control over the press and the procedures set out in the Bill. In some measure, the principle of the right of reply is rather like motherhood
Column 595and apple pie : everyone agrees with it in principle--it sounds very nice in the broad--but the problem lies in how to make it work in detail.
It is clear beyond doubt that a person who is the subject of inaccurate reporting in the press should have an opportunity to set the record straight. That, as the chairman of the Press Council said in 1978, was a "moral entitlement." It is questionable whether moral entitlement should be turned into a statutory right, as the Bill seeks to do.
Three Royal Commissions since the last war have argued strongly against giving responsibilities to the Government or Parliament for the conduct of the press. The most recent, in 1977, recommended against a statutuory right of reply. It said :
"The Press should not be subjected to a special regime of law, and should neither have special privileges nor labour under special disadvantages compared with the ordinary citizen."
I should point out to some supporters of the Bill that if the Government had introduced a measure on the same terms as that put forward by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, the Opposition would certainly have attacked us bitterly on the grounds that this wicked Government were destroying the cherished freedom of the press. Let them look carefully into their own hearts before assuring me that that is not so.
I have further reservations about the establishment of a statutory Press Commission. Do we really need another quango alongside the Press Council, or does the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie envisage the Press Commission replacing the Press Council? Could we be sure that a body born of legislation would attract greater responsibility from, or foster greater responsibility within, the press?
My fear is that there would be, on the contrary, a danger of any idea of self-discipline being abandoned and of everything being treated as acceptable that did not render editors actionable in law. There is the further point, made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston, that the 21 commissioners on the Press Commission are to be appointed by the Secretary of State for Home Affairs. That is a generosity on the part of the honourable Member, but it rather surprises me. I remember certain concern being expressed by the Opposition when we recently appointed Lord Rees-Mogg to be chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council. More recently, there has been a little dispute about the appointment of Lord Chalfont as the deputy chairman of the IBA with, particularly, the new leader of the Social and Liberal Democrats working himself up into a froth of indignation about the so-called patronage that lay behind this appointment. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, despite his well-known impartiality, good judgment and sense of discretion, were to be given the powers to appoint all 21 members of the Press Commission, I would bet my bottom dollar that within a day or two after the chairman had been announced by my right hon. Friend we would have an early- day motion signed by a large number of Opposition Members complaining bitterly that the chairman of the Press Commission had been chosen only because he was a poodle of the Government and that he was bound to have an interest in the suppression of the rights of Members of
Column 596Parliament, quite apart from being a director of all sorts of companies which clearly had South African business interests. There is nothing surprising about that. It lies within the natural order of things that Opposition Members will tend to become steamed up, at least about sensitive appointments made by the Government. When they do, they tend to forget that the deputy chairman of the BBC is a former and very senior Labour Treasury Minister.
Would a statutory body be any more likely than the current Press Council to secure the involvement of journalists? The best service that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie could do to his cause would be to seek to bring the National Union of Journalists back to membership of the Press Council, from which it withdrew at the start of the present decade. He may be interested to note that the NUJ has displayed a penchant towards self- regulation, having set up its own ethics council. I am pleased to see a recent letter in The Times from the chairman of the docklands branch of the NUJ.
That is a statement with which all hon. Members can agree. "As a result NUJ membership of the Press Council has returned to the agenda of both bodies and a Motion to that effect is to be debated by the Union's national delegate meeting in April, proposed by the Docklands' branch which represents journalists on the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the News of the World and the Sun. The branch believes that ordinary journalists should have the right to refer issues to the Press Council."
That is an attitude that I, as a member of APEX--the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff--thoroughly support the NUJ in believing.
That leads me to the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston. He asked how the proposals that we are debating fit in with the Press Council. I still believe--these are the remarks that the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie rightly anticipated--that the present system of voluntary self-regulation for the Press Council, however imperfect, is a more effective and appropriate form of control than could be provided by legislative action at present.
Mr. Michael Brown : I do not understand how my hon. Friend can stick to the line that he took last Friday, especially in view of the "That's Life" programme last Sunday, which dealt with the case of a mother who had had to put up with a story in the Sunday Sport alleging that her daughter had turned to stone. The mother raised the matter with the Press Council but the council did nothing. And what about the actor who committed suicide because there was no redress in the case of the News of the World ? The Press Council cannot help. Two incidents reported on "That's Life" last weekend pointed to the failure of the Press Council.
Column 597get in later in the debate. I fully understand his point. Hon. Members have said today--and in our debate last Friday, for which my hon. Friend was also present--that the Press Council is a toothless tiger and some have made remarks even more uncomplimentary. To my hon. Friend it is self-evident that the concept of self-regulation has come under very great strain as a result of certain newspapers' attitudes towards the council.
I fully agree with the remarks that have been made about the appointment of an ombudsman. If a newspaper is to appoint an ombudsman to examine complaints from readers or from those who feel that their privacy has been damaged by what it has printed, there is no point whatever in its appointing someone from its own ranks, such as a managing director or senior editor. If the ombudsman is to have any credence at all, he must come from outside. He must be an established person with an independent reputation. Otherwise, he is being asked to be poacher one day and gamekeeper the next, which will not work in the newspaper world any more than it works in other walks of life.
Mr. Worthington : I wish to return to the case referred to by the hon. Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown)--the case of scleroderma in which it was alleged that the patient had turned to stone. That case was put to the Press Council and was turned down. It was featured on the Esther Rantzen "That's Life" programme last weekend. In this week's edition of the paper there will be a declaration that the Sunday Sport now accepts that it was wrong. It will give the right of reply to the Raynaud's society and money will be paid to that society. But the point is that the Press Council upheld the Sunday Sport's decision in the first place.
Mr. Renton : I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, which is clearly endorsed by my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes. The hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks that he thought that the Press Council was fundamentally flawed. In that respect I do not agree with him. As my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest said, there is a difficult task ahead for the new chairman, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper--a man for whom the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said that he had deep respect. The Press Council is openly anxious to improve its image and procedures, and that must lead to improved effectiveness.
The new chairman, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, has already begun to develop radical and imaginative ideas for reform. I know that it will not be popular on either side of the House if I say that I believe that he should be given a chance to make his influence felt and raise the profile of the Press Council before we take action that could effectively undermine the future of self-regulation of the press. The Bill also seeks to extend legal aid to actions for defamation, for which it has never been available. That is because such actions are intrinsically precarious and uncertain and more likely to prove trivial or ill-founded. How many of us would at some stage have sought to
Column 598avenge in court a minor slight, an error or inaccuracy about ourselves, our wellbeing or competence, if legal aid had been available? I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about a reasonable case. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that that concept is clearer in the Scottish courts than in the English courts. The Government's view is that even if the general mechanics against unmeritorious proceedings could be strengthened in defamation cases, they still could not provide against the potential waste of public funds on ill-advised proceedings.
I have outlined briefly a number of reservations about the Bill as it stands. Of course I remain conscious of the interest that the topic has for hon. Members, particularly as the debate comes only a week after that on the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. To return to the point that I made earlier, those who live by the press in the interests of press freedom must be prepared occasionally to be wounded by the press, to suffer a misquotation or an allusion to the less flattering aspects of their anatomy, and those cases must be distinguished from those in which the urge for ever more intrusive investigative journalism or sensationalism cause genuine distress.
I do not believe that the Bill will make that distinction, with its attendent problems of what is or is not accuracy in editorial material. I do not consider that the Bill will necessarily help to improve matters. The thought of calling in 21 press commissioners to determine the question of factual accuracy, with a right of reply adviser providing assistance to complainants, all adds up to a picture of bureaucratic complexity in an area that is essentially one for very personal, subjective and speedy judgment.
This is a matter in which the House of Commons, however aggrieved it feels on behalf of its own Members and constituents, must keep a sense of proportion. I had a good deal of sympathy with the Sunday Express two weeks ago when it wrote :
"Are there not far more effective ways of punishing editors who invade privacy unnecessarily? Like refusing to buy their rubbishy newspapers".
I know that life is not that simple--I cited the increasing circulation of The Sun and the News of the World earlier--but I suspect that the answer lies with a more effective and quick moving Press Council, and I ask the House to bear in mind, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) did, the difficulties that are inherent in the Bill as it stands.
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : I am grateful for the opportunity to put the Opposition's view on the Bill. With some caution, I am pleased that the Government will not formally oppose it at this stage, although I am concerned by some of the Minister's remarks and I shall return to them later.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) on choosing the subject, drafting his Bill so shrewdly and on a really excellent speech which has received compliments from both sides of the House. The House should also pay tribute to the sponsors of the Bill, several of whom have spoken well in its defence. Others have waited all morning to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. That shows the genuine interest and support that the Bill has received in all parts of the House. In particular, we should pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs.
Column 599Clwyd) who has done so much to further this cause. I was also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie paid tribute to a former Member of the House, Mr. Frank Allaun, who tried to introduce such a measure in 1981 and 1982 and has continued writing about the issue in the press.
It has been an excellent debate and hon. Members have given some moving examples. There has been little serious disagreement, and hon. Members who have disagreed have generally made interesting and constructive suggestions. The House agrees that there is abuse by the press which does great damage to individuals, and that the inability of individuals to put the public record straight is an injustice that often produces sad and dangerous consequences. I do not wish to weary the House with too many examples but in case anyone is in doubt, I shall cite one example with which Conservative Members may have sympathy.
A Conservative county councillor, who does not wish to be named because his case is still before the Court of Appeal, was a rising star of his local authority and chairman of several committees. In May 1987, four newspapers- -three national, The Sun, the Daily Mirror and Today and one local--ran a story claiming that the man had been absent from council meetings because he was being treated for AIDS.
The councillor did not have AIDS, nor was he HIV positive and he has medical proof of that. There was absolutely no truth in the rumour. However, he could not obtain a retraction from the newspapers.
He won his case because he had sufficient resources to take it to court. He was awarded compensation and costs, but two of the newspapers have appealed.
In order to pursue that case, the man had to sell his house and now stays with friends and relatives. He had to leave his job because of the constant phone calls. His health has broken down and his career in local politics is finished. He has been broken by a completely false report in the press. That cannot be right.
There seems little disagreement in the House about the fact that the present system does not work. Tributes have rightly been paid to the integrity and record of the new chairman of the Press Council, Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, and the earnest and sincere work of the director, Mr. Ken Morgan. However, most people agree that the present system does not work well, and that includes those who are sceptical about the alternative. The House must decide whether there is a better system and, if so, whether the Bill provides it. Most hon. Members agree that there must be a better system and that the present one is not adequate.
The case for the Bill is simple. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie kept it short and simple. He has limited it to factual inaccuracies in the press. Much of what has been said in the debate has not taken that into account. The key element of the Bill is that there must be legal aid. The Minister criticised that. My hon. Friend has sought to present the Bill in the most reasonable way so that the House can accept the legal right and place it on the statute book.
The Bill is not a weapon to be used against the press and it will not punish them--though sometimes, as hon. Members have said, they push us dear to want a punishment. Mr. Richard Ingrams, the publisher of