Previous Section Home Page

Column 600

Private Eye said, smugly, that his motto was "publish and be sued". That may be an amusing and epigramatic remark for the publisher of Private Eye to make, but if the publisher or editor of a national newspaper were to take that sort of cavalier attitude he could do considerable damage.

The Bill is not a charter for aggrieved pedants who are willing to go to court over every dot and comma. There are dangers of that happening, but I believe that they can be worked out.

Many of us will think that it sad that the Bill will not raise the quality of press reporting. It will not stop some of the malpractices that we have heard about today such as door-stepping and cheque book journalism. It is concerned solely with factual inaccuracies. Many of us, such as my constituent Mrs. Denise Morse, would like it to stop such practices. She is a young woman who is dying from leukaemia and has raised £1 million while fighting the disease. She has been tortured by the press some of whom have sat on her doorstep for the past three months. When she sought to celebrate Christmas with her children early because her doctors said she would not live to see it, the press thought that it made a good story. They went to her door, knocking on it all day, asking : "Can we have a picture?" Her home and her marriage are now broken. Is that right?

The Bill will act as a deterrent, a bench mark. That is the intention. Its success will be that it will not be operated very much. Contrary to what the Minister said, it will not clog up the works enormously. Certainly, all the indications from other countries where the right of reply works are to that effect. Hon. Members have already touched on that aspect, and I do not think I need to elaborate.

Germany and France have had the right of reply for over 100 years. Belgium, Austria, Greece, Finland, Norway and Sweden all have different characteristics in this respect--there is not a uniform right of reply--but none of those countries has problems, such as the Minister touched on, about the press being too pedantic, too impossible, and simply having the papers full of rights of reply. Indeed, when one talks to journalists from those countries one gets the impression that the opposite is the truth.

In France, opinions differ about the effectiveness of the system, but it is not used very much. It is not that the hersant press in France is not very strident and sensational ; it is, but it is probably not of the same quality, or lack of quality, as the popular press here. The point is that the system acts as a deterrent, and certainly most people on the continent would feel that the conclusions to draw from its lack of use there is that it is effective as a benchmark and a deterrent.

Mr. Ground : Is it not the case that Sweden actually has a press ombudsman who is a judge and who goes back to work as a judge after he has done his stint as ombudsman? Mr. Fisher : As I understand it, Sweden has both a press ombudsman and a press commission. Indeed, some Conservative members will take comfort from the fact that those are voluntary, rather than statutory, arrangements. I am not saying that there is a uniform system, but all those countries have legislation enshrining a right of reply.

I believe that my hon. Friend has proved the need and has proved the good sense of his measure. But obviously

Column 601

we have to take into account the case that has been made against it--and there has been some criticism, some of it, as I have said, very interesting and contructive.

There has certainly been great criticism outside the House. It is noticeable that even the libertarian press, the quality press--the Minister referred to three leaders this morning--while discussing the matter, has almost unanimously said "We understand, we sympathise, but not now. We must find a voluntary way." Traditionally, the press has been enormously hostile to any legislation. The best part of the press adopts that attitude, because it fears a gag on press freedom. But this is not about the freedom of robust, interesting and even partisan comment ; what we are talking about is the freedom to report factual inaccuracies. That is no freedom at all. As Adlai Stevenson said, "You have confused the free with the free and easy"--and that is a very big distinction indeed. But the press, traditionally, has been very critical, and obviously we have to take that into account. That, indeed, is the context. It is interesting that, in spite of that barrage from the intelligent press saying "Don't do this", hon. Members throughout the House have said that we ought to go ahead. Let me come to some of the very interesting criticisms. Some have said that this is going to be too cumbersome and too slow. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) at the beginning of his intervention, seemed to be saying that 28 days was far too slow. In contrast, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) said that he feared that it was too fast and would not lead to good decisions. That sort of thing can be worked out. The hon. Member for Epping Forest also said that there would be too many complaints--a case made by other Members also. But that is not the experience abroad. Some of the most interesting points were made by the hon. and learned Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground), who raised specific queries about the relations there might be between the Press Council and the commission, the problems of trivia, which undoubtedly is a serious one, how inaccuracies would be decided, the limitations on witnesses, and the procedures of the Press Commission. These are all important and interesting things that must be given proper consideration in Committee, but I do not believe that any of them damage the principle of the measure, and I believe that, though they are worthy of great consideration, they should not deter us from giving the Bill a Second Reading.

Both the Minister and the hon. Member for Epping Forest queried the idea of the Government appointing press commissioners. I sympathise with the Minister. I suspect that if the Government did that, I would be one seeking to table an early-day motion. But that is because this Government's record on abusing Government appointments of governors of major bodies is poor. [ Hon. Members :-- "No."] The Minister, charming man that he is, waves that aside. Interestingly, Mr. Ludovic Kennedy's autobiography documents the story of how his wife, Miss Moira Shearer, was proposed for the board of governors of the BBC and was accepted by everybody all the way up as a highly intelligent, interesting, objective person, but, we understand from Mr. Kennedy, the Prime Minister said, "She's not one of us and she can't have the job." That is a cramped, crabbed view of who should represent the public interest. The Government's record is not good. I am afraid that I must disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie, because while this

Column 602

Government are in office I should be reluctant to give them power to appoint more people. Again, we can argue the toss about that later.

The Minister's remarks concern us because if we do not get the support or lack of hostility of the Government, the measure is lost. The Minister has a delightful manner. He seemed to suggest that he had sympathy with the principle of the Bill, but some of his remarks were less constructive. I am glad that he will not oppose the Bill and I hope that his remarks were noted by his hon. Friends, particularly the hon. Member for Northfield. Any attempt by Members to talk out this measure after the unanimity of this debate would wholly misjudge the mood of the House, and it would be viewed badly by both sides. It is one thing to disagree with it and wish to pursue it in Committee. We respect that, but to talk out the Bill would be to misjudge the mood of the House.

The Minister said that the Bill would not be practicable and he used the what-if-everybody argument, taking as an example an interesting news story yesterday and saying that many different aspects of it could provoke the right of reply. He knows well that that is a long-standing debating trick. He must also know that the record of right of reply legislation abroad does not give any credence to that argument. He cannot find a single example in the foreign press to substantiate what he said. He asked whether the measure would work and what effect it would have on headlines. We can discuss that, but that is no reason not to give the Bill a Second Reading.

There are few criticisms of the principle of the Bill. Hon. Members asked whether the laws on defamation and libel were not already adequate. They are not. They are only for the better off. One has to have access to considerable resources to make use of those laws. Although the new ideas on contingency fees being floated by the Government are interesting, they are only in a Green Paper. There is scepticism about a statutory body, and that is a fundamental problem. The Minister saw constitutional problems with legal aid. We recognise that they are substantial and are of principle rather than practical application. Nevertheless, it appears from our debate that the problem is large enough to make us tackle those problems in Committee. We need to consider this measure further.

It has been argued that the press can get it right by themselves. There is no sign that that is the case. Everything that has been said suggests that over the past 10 years the abuses of the press have grown worse rather than better. Such indicators as we have, for example the number of complaints to the Press Commission rising considerably to more than 1,000 a year, bear that out.

A case has been made for a press ombudsman. That undoubtedly exists on American papers, such as the Washington Post. It is interesting that The Sun is introducing it. It is hard to believe that anyone appointed by Rupert Murdoch will be fearlessly independent. I suspect that the House will wait with bated breath to hear the first independent judgment of The Sun ombudsman, taking his master fearlessly to task. If we hold our breath that long, we shall all die of suffocation. There is no evidence that the press will get it right. Sir Zelman Cowan, the former chairman of the Press Council, said :

"If newspapers persist in such behaviour, they will surely jeopardise the future of self-control in British newspapers."

Column 603

The mood of this debate suggests that they have already jeopardised their future and that we need to do something about it.

The Minister made the most substantial point of all. He said that we should give the Press Council one last try, particularly as it now has a very distinguished and well-respected chairman in Sir Louis Blom-Cooper. He commands great respect and it is no reflection on Sir Louis Blom-Cooper when we say that we do not believe that the Press Council will be able to get it right. The Press Council's structure is too cumbersome, bureaucratic and timid. It is not the right vehicle. It is a council for the press to defend the interests of the press. The council was not set up to defend the rights of the individual.

The 1962 Royal Commission said that the press should reform itself or statutory changes would be imposed. The 1977 Royal Commission said exactly the same. The 1984 Royal Commission introduced fast track corrections to improve matters but they have not done so. Both the House and the country are now impatient with the Press Council.

Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman says that fast track correction is not working. Does he not think that the reason for that is that the existence of the fast track correction system is not well known enough?

Mr. Fisher : Details about the Press Council are generally not well known enough and not well understood. That has been illustrated by many remarks. The Press Council does very little to make itself user friendly or available. I should welcome the Press Council giving greater publicity to its activities and helping people to make use of its facilities. However, I do not believe that the Press Council is the right vehicle or body, or that it has been given the right powers to address the many problems that face us. Surely the time has come for us to address those problems and place something on the statute book.

We are discussing whether the Bill should be considered in Committee. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has done everything that he can, both by his manner of presentation and by the skilful and shrewd way in which he has pitched the Bill, to make that easy. The Bill gets to the nub of the problem ; there ought to be a benchmark, a right of reply for individuals, to protect individuals. I suspect that that is the mood of the House. If we are to protect people such as that Conservative councillor whose case I mentioned, we need to protect them by means of a measure such as this. The Opposition support it. We believe that it should be part of a package of press reform to protect the individual. There should also be a right of privacy Bill, though not the Protection of Privacy Bill that was introduced last week, a freedom of information Bill and reform of the law of confidentiality and of the official secrets law. In addition, there should be moves to curb the concentration of newspaper ownership, but in that package the right of reply for individuals is absolutely essential.

The House will decide today whether it is right to legislate now. Newspapers are abusing their power. Individuals are getting hurt unnecessarily. Can the House help? The answer must be, yes--by ensuring a fair right of reply to correct factual inaccuracies.

Column 604

The question for the Government, particularly in Committee, is whether they really care or whether their free market philosophy in other matters is also to apply to this question. If they do not back a measure such as this they will be opening up the free market to distortion and inaccuracies. That is not what the Minister or the Government ought or should want to do. It is not a matter of leaving it to the free market, because in this case the free market hurts. The House ought to legislate. Readers outside Parliament expect us to do something about it. We owe it to them to do it.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) made a telling point when he said that the purpose of the House was to raise grievances on behalf of individuals and to try to protect the weak against the strong. Very few people in our media are stronger than the press barons and we have seen today that, in relation to them, individuals are weak. We, the House of Commons, owe it to those people to try to correct the imbalance. I hope that all hon. Members will join us in the Lobby, if we are given the opportunity, and support the Bill by giving it a Second Reading.

1.54 pm

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : I rise to give the Bill broad support. I say "broad" because I recognise that there are great difficulties in trying to do anything on this issue.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) must take note of some of the comments made, especially by his hon. Friends, some of whom have verged towards what I would call censorship and seek to interfere in the interpretation of newspaper stories rather than dealing with newspaper stories that are completely inaccurate or fictitious. We should concentrate on the latter two categories--not on the interpretation of newspaper stories.

The Member for Clydebank and Milngavie referred to the footnote problem and to the fact that footnote corrections to newspaper stories can appear years after the original article. However, as other hon. Members have said, there is more to it than that. One important point is that the footnote is so small and is hidden away. If there is to be a right of reply, it must be a suitable right of reply. If The Sun, the News of the World , the Daily Mirror or The Sunday People --Maxwell's newspapers are at least as bad as those produced by Rupert Murdoch--devote three or five pages to smearing and telling lies about an individual they must know when they do it that the right of reply will involve three or five pages, including the front page. If such newspapers found that several times a month they had to devote their front page to an apology, in big letters, with big lurid photographs of the editor, perhaps they would think twice about smearing members of the public.

We need to protect individual citizens--that is one of the jobs of Members of Parliament. Hon. Members can largely look after themselves, but stories nevertheless appear about them. I shall refer to one. I apologise to the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Mr. Pendry), who is not in his place, for not having cleared this matter with him. Two weeks ago he was smeared in the News of the World . I do not know or care whether the article was true. However, as the article appeared on three pages of the News of the World , it hardly matters whether it was true because everybody will believe it because he has read it in

Column 605

the newspapers. If a reply is justified and if the hon. Gentleman asks for a right of reply, it must be given the same weight. I refer now to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. I heard him speak at great length, both this week and last week, about what the Press Council could do to improve itself and that we must give it a chance. If the Bill goes into Committee and we discuss this matter in the future, I hope that my hon. Friend will elaborate on what he wants to see from the Press Council. If the Press Council can do the job of protecting individual citizens, I want to hear how, because it must be acknowledged that it is not doing so at the moment. We need either the route that to which the Minister referred or the route suggested in the Bill. At the moment there is nothing.

I should like to make two points about the press. First, too many journalists drag down the standards of the majority who seek to report the truth. I shall relate two stories which illustrate the problem of journalists who do not understand the difference between truth and fiction.

When I worked for BBC television news, I spent some time in Montevideo during the Falklands war, and was present when the first of the hospital ships returned carrying a number of wounded British soldiers and seamen. After I filed a story to London, I got into terrible trouble with the BBC's foreign desk because I had missed "the key shot." I was told that the front page of The Sun --the newspaper that backed our boys--carried a close-up photograph of a sign reading "Hello Mum". The caption to that picture stated that the sign was held aloft by a pathetically wounded British soldier managing to summon strength enough to hold up his sign for the cameras. I was asked where that shot was in the BBC bulletin that had gone out the night before.

When I examined the video material that we had shot, I discovered where that sign was to be seen. It was in a shot that we had used--held aloft by a burly rating with arms like Popeye's, smiling at the cameras--just having a bit of fun, and there is nothing wrong with that. The journalist who filed The Sun story knew that he was lying. It may not have been an important item, but the fact remains that the journalist knew that he was lying. If he lied on that occasion, no doubt he will lie on others--one cannot rely on that journalist to tell the truth.

My second example adds to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), with which I thoroughly agree, about the Bermondsey by- election. I intended to make much the same comments. As a candidate of a party that would have great difficulty in winning the Bermondsey by- election, I naturally had great difficulty in persuading the press to take seriously anything that I said. I do not complain about that. After the by- election, however, a journalist who is still a member of the press lobby said, "I am sorry about the way that we treated you--I really want to apologise, but we had to ignore you so as to make sure that we got the result that we wanted and that the Labour party did not win that by- election." That was his job. He did not mind about the truth--he had a job to do, and he went ahead and did it. One cannot rely on that journalist, either, to tell the truth.

Many journalists are too lazy to tell the truth. I will criticise a journalist whose work I enjoyed reading, in a newspaper that I enjoy reading. I refer to Colin Brown and The Independent. Mr. Brown writes marvellous and interesting stories about the House, but I have yet to read

Column 606

one of his reports in The Independent without finding a silly inaccuracy, when anyone working in the House or in the press lobby ought to know better. They are usually unimportant and trivial mistakes, but they still mean that Mr. Brown, like many other journalists, is too lazy to find out the truth. If such journalists cannot be trusted, the Bill is needed.

It is not just right hon. and hon. Members who need protection from the press but the public--and it is they whom the Bill seeks to protect. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and will consider and amend it in detail in Committee, as I wish to do.

2.3 pm

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Madam Deputy Speaker, you will remember an old guy called Bill Blyton who used to be a Member of the House and eventually finished up in the Lords. In Annie's Bar, he took every new Member of the House to one side and said, "If you want to get your name in the papers, go down Whitehall and take your trousers off--and if you want to get your photograph in as well, let them have a look in your pockets." He was absolutely right. Many right hon. and hon. Members have courted publicity. The Bill is not about protecting politicians, the famous, or others who have open to them every avenue for self-protection. The Minister dos not do the Bill justice with his tales of Kinnock, Tebbit and Sky Television. The Minister knows damn well that that is not what the Bill is about. Politicians and those in show business who look for publicity, and thrive on it, know the mechanics and how to look after themselves.

The hon. and learned Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Ground) referred to the libel laws. We should start asking ourselves a few questions about those laws. Why do the more famous cases such as that involving Jeffrey Archer get to court in 18 months, whereas those involving even famous politicians such as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) take three years? Others take even longer. Who jumps the queue?

Then there is the matter of paying money into court. The Minister knows that the system works only for the famous. It works because newspapers are terrified of what juries will award and settle out of court. We have had the Koo Stark settlement and the Jeffrey Archer settlement and the rich and famous are making more money than they should. That is no consolation or help to the ordinary housewife and other people who are suffering. A headline in last week's News of the World says,

"My 3-day blind date sex romp".

That is a story about an ordinary housewife who went on a blind date and then went to bed with the guy. Another headline says : "Blind date Judy was such fun in bed."

That woman's life is destroyed. Probably the guy with whom she went on a blind date went to the News of the World and sold his story. There is a picture of her in the paper and all her neighbours and people in her town now know about it. There is also a picture of two nice-looking children. Those young lads will have to suffer innuendo at school and their lives have been utterly destroyed. Those people are not rich or famous, and that has been done to them for the sake of a cheap headline in a national newspaper which has probably 12 million or 13 million readers.

A story in The Sun yesterday says :

Column 607

"Sorry boys, your daddy was a girl.

Three men turned up to their 74-year-old father's funeral--and found out for the first time that their old man was really a woman." The boys were adopted and the story said that their father had, "switched sex in the 1950s so he could work with all-male jazz bands."

Think how it destroys a family when at a time of grief they know that everybody in the street, in the pub, their families and those with whom they work have read such stories. They are devastated by such cheap-jack stories. In The Sun on Monday, there is a headline that says :

"Telly snooker ref, 57 falls for cutie of 24. John cheats wife". Nobody had noticed before that he refereed snooker matches on television. Such headlines and stories appear time and again and they are destroying innocent people.

We heard in the debate about a Member of Parliament who was mentioned in the News of the World. He is a friend of mine and I hope that he goes to law, takes the News of the World to the cleaners and is awarded devastating damages. That avenue is open to us and we know what we are doing, but the people that I have mentioned do not. As the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) said, people are treated in much the same way now as they were treated in the 15th or 16th centuries when people were tortured, locked in dungeons or had their heads chopped off. The newspapers are judge and jury, there is no trial and psychologically the punishments are every bit as savage as the torture that was carried out in olden days.

The newspapers do not carry stories only about the loony Left, although they did during the run-up to the last general election when they carried stories about councillors in London. Those stories were disproved in the famous "Hits and Myths" book published by Goldsmith's college, which showed that stories about black bin liners and other such stories were outrageous lies and inventions and that journalists were being paid to invent stories to denigrate London councils and councillors.

We heard earlier about the story of a man who became involved in a picket line dispute and because of that his past was revealed. Many years before he had been convicted of an offence but it was well out of time. He went to the Press Council but got no satisfaction. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and I were on a programme about this on Birmingham television, and the studio was full of people with complaints. I do not have much respect or time for Sarah Keays, but she was right to confront the Daily Mail woman who rang her and told her that the paper wanted to do a piece about her. Miss Keays said that she did not want to comment and was told, "Even if you don't we shall still print the piece about you, so you might as well say something." Miss Keays's comments were turned upside down and she was faced with a large article in the paper inviting readers to,

"Tell us what you think, address your letter to Keays." In addition to the "non-interview" the paper got three pages of letters.

The newspapers pull every stunt in the book. Yet, it is amazing how thin skinned journalists are when such things happen to them. The lady from the Daily Mail was very upset when she was confronted about what she had said.

Column 608

There was also the famous instance of the editor of The Sun being upset because he was not satisfied with his double glazing. He bored everybody stiff, telling them what a rotten firm it was. Sir John Junor of the Sunday Express was stopped by police on his way home. What a tragedy it was. The editor of The Mail on Sunday was stopped in his car by the police the other week. There were 4,000 words in reply. He went on the Kilroy show. Robert Maxwell sues for libel as soon as anybody says a word against him. They are firm believers in retaliation. When it comes to anybody else, anything goes. The Minister might examine the suspicion of a sinister connivance between the police and some tabloids in getting stories. For instance, how did the tabloids manage to get the news that the Chancellor of the Exchequer's wife had been breathalysed, within hours of its happening? She did not put it in the newspapers. No reporter or press agent was hanging around. Somebody at the police station--whether for money or otherwise--tipped them off.

There is the case of a famous football manager. I shall not mention his name as it would be embarrassing for him. He was cautioned for kerb crawling--cautioned, not charged--and he denied the caution. It was splashed in four-inch letters across the front page of The Sun. He had a £90,000 a year job but because of the publicity he was sacked. He would have been better off going to court. At least he could have defended himself. He could have had a lawyer, but instead he was tried by innuendo. Who tipped off the paper? He was cautioned at 9 o'clock. He said that he was looking for a place to park. Maybe he was--he had a perfect right to do so. The following morning, it was splashed all over the front page of The Sun. That man had no rights. He took legal advice and his lawyer said, "You might not have been found guilty if you went to court, but you were cautioned so you cannot sue for libel." That man has no recompense. There is no way for him to appeal or complain.

That is the cheque-book journalism that was mentioned earlier. It is not often done by people employed by newspapers--it is done by freelance bounty hunters who concoct stories, knowing that there is a ready market, even if their story only involves Mrs. Brown down the road.

I know of two cases. The first--I will not say where it happened--involves a miner who was fined for parking in the wrong place. There is nothing wrong with that. The only thing was that he was wearing silk stockings, a suspender belt, and other women's clothing. [Interruption.] It is funny--OK--but that man had to quit his job at the pit and move to another town. He had to uproot his wife and kids and take them somewhere else just because of a £20 parking fine. We see that sort of thing all the time.

Another case involves a woman whose husband was mentally unstable. She was at a new year's eve party and she was doing the can-can. He went outside and committed suicide. That point came out at the inquest, and a local paper splashed it across the front page. It was not enough that her husband committed suicide she was made to look like a tart who had forced him to do it. That is a 20-year sentence for people. They have no right of reply and no right to complain. They cannot go to court. They are isolated.

We have heard how the press can surround and literally lay siege to a person's house. Hon. Members have told us what can happen. There is absolute licence to vandalise. Gengis Khan killed people and ruined lives. Hon.

Column 609

Members have seen the lack of attendance in the Press Gallery. There have been virtually no reporters present. There will be nothing in the papers tomorrow. They will say, "Play it cool, play it quiet, say nothing," and go back to their old habits next week.

As hon. Members know, I am a journalist, and I was taken before the Press Council by somebody who complained. I thought that I had made a serious point about gipsy children--how half of them do not reach the age of five because of pre-natal neglect--but somebody objected. It is a complicated business, but I lost.

I complained to the Press Council myself when a newspaper splashed across its front page,

"Ashton's vote gives £11,000 pay award to MPs."

There was a majority of one, but the newspaper said that it was my particular vote. In reality, the increase was only £8,000, but that did not matter either. On that occasion, the Press Council found in my favour. Reading The Daily Telegraph three months later, one would have thought that it was the other way round ; it was impossible to believe that I had won the case.

It is almost impossible to look casually at a report by the Press Council and see what the outcome of a case was. The Bill will not prevent people taking libel actions in court, but will be a deterrent to editors, who may have to cut up their papers with letters from people saying "You have got it wrong, this is unfair, I am not having it and I demand that you print my side of the story." Any journalist knows that space in a tabloid newspaper is at a premium. If a tabloid wants a story containing 500 words and the reporter sends 510 words, it will chop 10 words--usually the last 10, which makes a nonsense of the story. Space is valuable for advertising, so the last thing that editors of tabloid newspapers want is to print a page full of letters of reply. That will stop this sort of nonsense. The competition is so ferocious that the tabloids will go more and more down-market. We must hit them where it hurts--in their valuable advertising space. 2.17 pm

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfields) : I have listened to all the speeches, apart from when I had to make one or two excursions outside, with much interest. Although I understand the motives behind the Bill and fully sympathise with them, I do not think that it will correct misreporting or improve poor editorial standards, which is so desperately necessary.

My hon. Friend the Minister presented the Government's view cogently and hit the nail on the head many times. In theory, the Bill will solve the problems, but in reality I do not think that it will. Hon. Members have recounted previous press excesses. We heard of the Bermondsey by-election. We had a trip down memory lane about the fraught conflicts with the National Union of Railwaymen, with all that that meant for public relations, attitudes to the electorate, people in the community and union workers.

None of the problems will be resolved by the Bill. Some dreadful remarks were made and published at the time of the Bermondsey by-election and such reporting will continue. Bad stories and bad journalism will occur irrespective of the right to reply. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) recounted stories such as "Your dad was a mum." That may have been factually right. It may have been a devastating shock to the family to read about it on the front page of a tabloid with a circulation

Column 610

of over 4 million, but the fact remains that the story might have been right. Although we can condemn it as appalling journalism and bad taste, there is little right of reply to correct what has been said.

If there is a need for a right to reply, the press will not concede it readily or willingly. It will have to go through the new procedure that is proposed in the Bill, which will take time. The press will concede readily that it has someone's age or surname wrong and it will, no doubt, offer a retraction in the newspaper in the same space, style and prominence in which it appeared in the original article--which was probably insignificant. But newspapers will seek to uphold the main story through every avenue that is open to them under the Bill. That process will be long if newspapers keep asking for more time to produce evidence. The damage will have been done, the report will have been written and the publicity will have been felt up and down the land, so it will be of small benefit for those who have suffered the heartache of misreporting to have a correction put in months later.

Hon. Members have mentioned periodicals. They can literally be published periodically--weekly, monthly, quarterly or even half-yearly. I suggest that there would be difficulty in obtaining corrections that were still timely and relevant to the indiscretion that might have been committed by a journalist in an organ because they might take months to happen. That would mean that the right of reply of the person who had been misreported would be almost worthless. It will not mean anything because the damage will have been done.

We have not tackled the root cause of what we consider to be bad journalism. We should re-emphasise through the existing or a strengthened mechanism the effect of the Press Council. That is where there is public pressure and, from what my hon. Friend the Minister has said, I hope that Government pressure will continue to be exerted. I hope that the new chairman of the Press Council can continue to make his influence felt to ensure that the excesses that we have all suffered or heard reported do not continue to take place.

Some reporting is colourful or sensational and we may not want to be reported in that way, but it is legitimate to do that if it sells newspapers and if it is a way of reporting items that are considered to be newsworthy. We need, of course, to uphold factuality by ensuring that reports are factually correct. It is not right or proper for any hon. Member to endorse or support any newspaper or newspaper management that deliberately reports inaccurately and does not check facts first.

Mr. Michael Brown : The Sunday Sport makes it up.

Mr. King : My hon. Friend mentions the Sunday Sport and I have no truck with that rag. It is a deplorable organ. However, the mechanism exists within the press system to bring it under control. The mechanism may need overhauling or revising, but we should not accept a Bill that reduces it to the right of reply. We are dealing with clever people who can get round actions such as those suggested in the Bill and can find ways of delaying matters.

We have talked for much of today about the tabloid press, but I am more interested in the effect that the Bill may have on what we call the serious press. I mentioned in a couple of interventions that we lead Europe in the investigative role of our newspapers. I strongly refute the impression that our way of life, press, system of society

Column 611

and politics are identical to those in the rest of Europe, so we can have identical legislation. But the role of the serious press in this country has increasingly become the role of a policeman of many of the excesses that have taken place in Government and in many companies and international organisations. The roll of honour is substantial. Under the Bill, would the Thalidomide scandal ever have broken? It might have become bogged down in a lawyers' paradise of asking for the right of reply and the manufacturers, Distillers company, would have left no stone unturned.

Mr. Michael Brown : The case went to court.

Mr. King : Yes, but it would not have to go to court during the course of the report. If a page or two appeared in The Sunday Times condemning the company publicly, the company, as a body of people, would be entitled to seek redress the following week, with a sponsored article by the company's lawyers. Would that be a worthwhile procedure for the betterment of public knowledge? In an intervention, I referred to the depressing difficulty of reporting accidents and disasters, of which, alas, we have had far too many recently. When we had an accident on the London Underground the press was certainly not slow to come forward with condemnations, and neither were Members of Parliament and others in responsible positions. The result was that London Regional Transport was tried publicly in the media before the official inquiry even opened. In the case of the M1 air crash--

Mr. Worthington rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.

Question put, That the question be now put :--

The House divided : Ayes 120, Noes 0.

Division No. 74] [2.25 pm


Aitken, Jonathan

Allen, Graham

Archer, Rt Hon Peter

Armstrong, Hilary

Ashton, Joe

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)

Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)

Bidwell, Sydney

Bray, Dr Jeremy

Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)

Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)

Browne, John (Winchester)

Buchan, Norman

Buck, Sir Antony

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Canavan, Dennis

Cash, William

Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Cohen, Harry

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Cousins, Jim

Cryer, Bob

Next Section

  Home Page