Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Cohen : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The kind of appeals tribunal to which the Minister refers would be absolutely worthless. In the case to which he referred the girl would be deported. The Minister would not interfere with the immigration officer's decision. She could appeal only in the country from which she came. The procedure that the Minister wants to include in the Bill would be useless.

Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman's Pavlovian reaction to my remark was exactly the one that I had expected. The appeals tribunal's function is to review Home Office decisions. It is no longer the duty of Ministers to interfere with those decisions. That change has been widely welcomed by a large majority of hon. Members.

I do not intend to elaborate on the rules that might support the appeals tribunal. If my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North cares to write to me about it, should the matter progress further, we could then look carefully together at the rules.

I share the general approval, expressed in the Chamber and in Committee, of the good-humoured manner in

Column 590

which the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has approached this difficult subject. His good humour seemed to be in danger of cracking for a few minutes this morning, but he quickly re- established his normal equilibrium. I wholly understand and sympathise with the concern that has been expressed about the excesses of the national press, particularly the tabloid press. There is worry about doorstepping, intrusion into people's private lives, persistent trick questioning, the taking of secret photographs and the harassment of ordinary people, especially at times of distress when they are least able to cope. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie said that lots of people were sick about the way in which the press behave. I agree. However, despite the deliberations in Committee, the Bill is still fundamentally flawed.

The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie praised the new chairman of the Press Council, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper. I remind him of the first paragraph of an article in The Times today that was written by Mr. Blom-Cooper. It says :

"The nuts and bolts of the Right of Reply Bill have been widely demonstrated to be utterly impracticable The proposed legislation is also fundamentally flawed, however, in seeking for the first time to regulate the content of a newspaper by law."

There is no point in the hon. Gentleman praying in aid the chairman of the Press Council as a supporter of the Bill. He is not. He regards the Bill as fundamentally flawed. Even the National Union of Journalists believes that it is flawed. [Interruption.] What a pity that the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore), who is a member of the National Union of Journalists and who was here earlier, has left the Chamber. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) should know that the NUJ has said that it is determined to regain membership of the Press Council as part and parcel of that more effective structure that Mr. Blom-Cooper is trying to organise. I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome that development.

Mr. Wilson : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Renton : Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to finish this point.

The NUJ considers that the Bill is flawed. It may believe in a statutory right of reply but it has made it abundantly plain that it does not consider that this Bill is the right vehicle for it.

Mr. Wilson : Many NUJ members, including me, do not wish to be protected if we pursue mendacity. All that the Bill does is to remove the right to make factual inaccuracies--in many cases very hurtful and damaging inaccuracies. That is not a press freedom which I or any other responsible journalist wishes to maintain.

Mr. Renton : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point. It leads me to exactly the next point that I want to make. The Bill would certainly allow a correction to be enforced legally where necessary. However, let us examine the point more closely. The Bill's title is somewhat misleading. It does not create a right of reply. Such a term implies a right for an individual to state his case or to respond to published material--factual or not, inaccurate or not--in the same publication.

What, however, does the Bill offer? It creates a right to correct inaccurate statements of fact in published material,

Column 591

provided that the complainant can establish first, that the material was factually inaccurate, secondly, that the factual inaccuracy affected him personally and, thirdly, that any reasonable person might deem that inaccuracy to be damaging to his character, reputation or good standing--in other words, that it is defamatory. 11.45 am

Even leaving aside the notorious difficulty of drawing a clear line between fact, comment and opinion and the further problem of proving that a statement of fact is inaccurate and defamatory, it seems to me that the Bill will eventually only allow a satisfactory reply to unfair reporting in a small number of cases.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin) : Can the Minister explain the constantly recurring problem of what is and what is not fact, which we can all understand causes difficulty? He, as a Home Office Minister, is responsible for, among other things, all the Broadcasting Acts, which lay down specifically that responsibility must be taken for factual accuracy. That is spelt out in the programme guidelines throughout the broadcasting media. How is it possible for the Minister, who is responsible for regulations that make for better broadcasting standards, to say that they are inapplicable to the press?

Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman destroys his own case. There is much discussion and criticism now of broadcast documentaries that have acquired the name of "faction" because they are a mix of fact and fiction. Many people believe that that is a bad trend within many reportedly factual documentaries.

Mr. Grocott rose --

Mr. Renton : I think that I should make progress. There will be plenty of opportunities to discuss broadcasting on other days. I want to take up the point about the dividing line between fact, comment and opinion. If, for example, we become involved in a legal suit, we believe that the facts are all on our side. The other side believes that the facts are all on its side. There is no agreement about where the facts lie. As to the borderline between fact and opinion, if the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mr. Grocott) went into a restaurant and said afterwards--and it was reported in the press--"The food was not fresh and the service was awful", would that be fact or opinion? [ Hon. Members :-- "Opinion."] Others would say that it was fact.

Mr. Grocott : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby) : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Renton : No. We went into this matter in great detail in Committee. There is a borderline between fact, comment and opinion. Several Hon. Members rose --

Mr. Renton : I shall give way to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie.

Mr. Worthington : The Broadcasting Act 1981 set up the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. The commission was given responsibility to stop unwarranted intrusions into privacy. However, that responsibility was not defined. If the Minister can give the Broadcasting Complaints

Column 592

Commission such a difficult concept to deal with, why would it not be possible for a press commission to deal with the much simpler issue of fact?

Mr. Renton : I am very well aware of the Broadcasting Complaints commission and its terms of reference. If the Bill sponsored by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) is considered by the House on Report, we shall have the opportunity to discuss privacy. Today we are discussing neither broadcasting nor privacy, but the inaccurate reporting of facts.

Mr. Tebbit : We have had a perfect example of the difficulties about facts this morning when the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) referred to Mr. Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association. Since then I have received a letter from Mr. Moncrieff, who is my constituent, saying that there was some difficulty over the facts because, most notably, the hon. Gentleman did not mention that the disputed telephone calls in the anecdote did not appear on Mr. Moncrieff's telephone bill because his wife did not accept the request for a reverse-charge call. Having read all the accounts of these matters, the hon. Gentleman should have been fair to a journalist.

Mr. Renton : My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a precise example of misreporting when one part of the story is carefully left out in order to make a point. It is precisely the sort of nightmare that the Bill would produce.

Mr. Worthington rose --

Mr. Renton : I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman as it is his Bill, but then I must make progress.

Mr. Worthington : How is it possible for the allegation to be made that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown) reversed the charges from Kabul in Afghanistan at £9.37 a time? How would one know the amount of money?

Mr. Renton : I do not think that I am responsible for the activities of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Brown). In my days at the Foreign Office, when the hon. Member for Leith moved on from his regular questions about Afghanistan to a question about Albania, I remember congratulating him on making progress down the alphabet, but I do not think that I have any responsibility for his bills. The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise the matter on an Adjournment debate, as clearly it is a matter worth pursuing. We have briefly discussed the press commission. I consider that it would be another quango with no fewer than 21 members on it. What a nightmare of bureaucracy is in prospect with all 21 members having to see all the papers and all the complaints and doubtless having to agree unanimously on the outcome of each complaint within 28 days of receiving the complaint. And what at the end of the day about the Press Council? Will it fade into the distance and beyond? We have heard a great deal of criticism of the Press Council.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Renton : The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), who was a member of the Standing Committee, must let me develop the point a little further.

Column 593

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would welcome the disappearance of the Press Council, but they forget that it has other important functions such as to preserve the established freedom of the press and to make representations to the Government on appropriate occasions. How will the press commission interact with the Press Council? I asked the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie that question in Committee, but I never received an understandable reply. Confusion is bound to occur in the relationship between the Press Council and the press commission.

Mr. Ashton : The Minister reads his brief and confuses question and comment. Will he make it perfectly clear whether he is speaking for himself or for the Government?

Mr. Renton : I am pleased to say that the Government and I are as one on this issue--and that is most satisfactory. As I have said before-- and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) heard me speak about this in Committee and will not be surprised by anything I say--my deepest objection to the principle of the Bill is that it intrudes on the freedom of the press. It introduces a measure of Government control over the press, and who can say what would follow, once one statutory measure had been introduced? We have not had statutory control of the press in Britain since the days of Cromwell in the 17th century.

Mr. John Browne : My hon. Friend has said that if the Bill were passed it would intrude on the rights of the press. He is really saying that it would intrude on the rights of the press to bully individual people and that is the whole question. He places reliance on the Press Council, whose members are very hard-working people, but they have no teeth, and of course they lack credibility. He talks about ombudsmen, but they are seen not as ombudsmen but as "ombudsmice". What the House and the Bill are trying to do is to protect the individual person with ombudsmen--something with teeth.

Mr. Renton : I heard the phrase "not ombudsmen but ombudsmice" for the first time two days ago in the Committee considering my hon. Friend's Bill. It is a nice turn of phrase, but he does less than justice to the new chairman of the Press Council, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper, who is clearly determined to prove its effectiveness and continues to believe, as I do, in the system of self-regulation of the press. I am very pleased to note the warning given by Mr. Blom-Cooper in his foreword to the recent report of the Press Council :

"Much more should and will be expected from all those in and out of the Press Council who have an abiding interest in ensuring that an independent, self-regulatory body should succeed in averting statutory intervention."

That is at the heart of the matter. Evidence of the new intent and purpose of the Press Council is clear from its speedy announcement this week to investigate the propriety of the photographic coverage of the Hillsborough disaster, which has been mentioned this morning. We should all approve of the Press Council acting so quickly to examine the propriety of publishing those photographs.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : How will the Minister's announced review of press law address the

Column 594

question raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the abuses of factual inaccuracies in the press? Does he intend that his review will cover that, and how will it address that point?

Mr. Renton : Despite all his persuasive skills, the hon. Gentleman must allow me to make my own speech in my own way and in the order that I choose.

It is my very strong view that, despite the lack of action and the feeling of apathy in the Press Council in recent years, we should not undermine its determination to bring about fundamental change. Mr. John Browne rose --

Mr. Renton : With all respect to my hon. Friend, I have give way generously and others wish to speak.

Nor do I think we should lightly jettison the commitment and good will which all sections of the press are showing to the Press Council.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie on what he has achieved, not only in bringing his Bill to Report today, but because his Right of Reply Bill has woken up newspaper proprietors, publishers and editors to extent of concern that they have not shown for years. The heavies have thundered against him from Wapping, the Isle of Dogs, Southwark bridge and Chelsea bridge. They have all been telling us about the inadequacies of his Bill. The local newspapers have written to us in the same vein. I have received two letters from two newspapers printed in my constituency pointing out the errors of the Bill and very politely asking me to try and be present in the House today. I received the same message from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has even had the honour of a long and wordy article written by Bernard Levin in The Times . That article is as prolix, complex and emotional as any criticism by Mr. Levin of a bad performance of the Ring Cycle.

Editors and publishers are steamed up. They have been made thoroughly aware of the proper, correct and understandable anxieties of many hon. Members.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) : Will the Minister give way? 12 noon

Mr. Renton : I did not give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, so I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. The editors and publishers are, to put it crudely, in a lather and the pressure must not go away. As Members of Parliament we must ensure that editors and journalists, such as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)--it is good that he has left Sky television to join us today--

Mr. Mitchell : Will the Minister give way now?

Mr. Renton : Since I named the hon. Gentleman, I shall give way.

Mr. Mitchell : The Minister said that there were monstrous abuses by the press and that the Bill was flawed. In those circumstances, the honest and honourable course would be not to praise the Bill with faint damns and postpone everything unto the ides of Blom-Cooper and certainly not to go along with the monstrous conspiracy of the lackeys and lickspittles of the Fleet street magnates on

Column 595

the Conservative Benches and filibuster against the Bill, but to provide Government time either to improve the Bill or introduce his own measure.

Mr. Renton : The hon. Gentleman has now achieved his 30 seconds on television tonight. Why is it that one is a lackey and a lickspittle if one writes for The Times but not if one appears on Sky television, which is also part of the Murdoch empire? Perhaps he can tell us where the precise line of definition lies.-- [Interruption.] I have appeared on Sky television with the hon. Member for Great Grimsby and it was great fun. I recommend it to the House. If, by any chance, the Bill does not receive its Third Reading, the editors and publishers of the national press in Britain are on probation-- [Laughter.] They have a year or two in which to clean up their act. If they succeed--I hope that they will--effective, quick and fair self-regulation that protects the position and rights of the private individual and the small man who cannot look after himself very well will remain the order of the day. That will happen without statutory control of the press. If not, Parliament will certainly return to this issue. For that reason and on raising the temperature of the debate I congratulate the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester.

There is a better way out of the difficulties that would be created by the Bill and by the Protection of Privacy Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. Those difficulties have dominated our debate so far today and they dominated our proceedings in Committee. Therefore, it is right that I should let the House know that the Government have decided that there should be a review of the general issue of privacy and related matters--areas with which both Bills are concerned. The review will be conducted outside Government and will aim to report to the Home Secretary within a year.

Mr. Ashton : Who will carry out the review?

Mr. Renton : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked me that question from a sedentary position.

Decisions have still to be taken on who should be invited to chair the review and the precise terms of reference. A formal announcement will be made in due course. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester will regard that as a positive step.

Mr. John Browne rose --

Mr. Renton : I will not give way to my hon. Friend.

The review is designed to deal with the problems that have correctly and understandably concerned hon. Members on both sides of the House and I trust that it will be widely welcomed.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) : People outside the House will be surprised and depressed by the fact that the new clause, which we have been debating for two and half hours, was accepted by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) at the beginning of the debate. They will find it surprising that the Minister, by speaking for over half an hour, has indirectly associated himself and the Government with the filibuster that has prevented the serious points that have been raised both inside and outside the House from being raised. When the Minister said that he hoped the Bill receive a Third Reading--

Column 596

Mr. Renton : I did not say that.

Mr. Fisher : He said that he hoped that we would proceed to a Third Reading. His behaviour this morning makes that difficult. Once again we have seen a confused stance by the Government. They did not vote against the Bill on Second Reading and they did not seek to vote against any of the amendments in Committee. They have remained passive. Yet we understand from the press that over the past few weeks, by whispering and making unofficial leaks to the press, the Government have made it clear that they are now opposed to the Bill. They would have done themselves and the debate a greater service by playing a more active role in the Second Reading and Committee stages.

The Government and hon. Members on both sides of the House know that over the past few years there has been a growing number of abuses, as identified by my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. The Press Council's annual report for the past few years has revealed an increase in abuses by certain sectors of the press. Opposition Members accept that the regional press and the free press do not indulge in those tactics. We know that we are talking about only a small section of the press. However, the damage that can be done to people's lives, marriages, relationships and prospects is grave. If hon. Members who have sought to speak at great length this morning do not recognise the seriousness of that offence and the depth of feeling in the country, they are mistaking the mood of the House and the country.

Mr. Wilson : Does my hon. Friend agree that a test of press freedom in this country will be to see how many newspapers tomorrow list the small bunch of Tories who have done the dirty work today and filibustered during this debate?

Mr. Fisher : I agree with my hon. Friend. It will be surprising to see that list.

I am delighted that the Minister has now explained to the House, at least in principle, the review that he intends to put in train. In the absence of the Government's support for this legislation, that will be widely welcomed.

Mr. John Browne : Does the hon. Gentleman remember that, although the Government have announced a review, that is exactly what happened when the late Lord Mancroft introduced his privacy Bill and when Mr. Alex Lyon and Mr. Brian Walden did the same? The Younger committee reported in 1972 and since then the situation has got worse and worse. All we shall have is the eyewash of yet another review.

Mr. Fisher : Because of the way in which they have approached this issue and the issue raised by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), the House will be looking closely at the Government when they deliver the review. It will want strong assurances about the terms of reference. I note that, when referring to the terms of reference of the review, the Minister mentioned privacy, which is of great interest to all people, but did not mention the right of reply. I hope that in setting the terms of the review he will specifically include that and other abuses and lay out clearly for the chairman exactly what the Government expect. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the membership of the review is wide-ranging and includes independent people who represent the views of the general public.

Column 597

The Government's record on appointing bodies such as this is deplorable. Too often, Government appointments to such review bodies are extremely partial. I hope that on this occasion the Minister will ensure that a wide range of views is included in order to give it the credibility that the public require and that is necessary in view of the debate we have had over the past few weeks.

History will be on the side of the Bill, and we shall return to it next year. This is the fourth or fifth time this decade that an hon. Member has tried to introduce such legislation. We have moved further, thanks to the excellent work and advocacy of my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie. We have at last persuaded Ministers and hon. Members that this issue cannot and will not go away. The Government must recognise that and understand the seriousness of the problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie has done an excellent job over the past few weeks. He has shown clearly the seriousness of the abuses that have occurred. His anxieties have been echoed around the country. It is up to the Government, if they cannot support the Bill, to get on with the review, give a time limit for it, undertake that they will introduce legislation at the end of it and bring their recommendations before the House. The public will expect nothing less of the Government, and it is up to them to fulfil those expectations.

Mr. Rooker : In the interests of the little people against the lie sheets, I beg to move, That the Question be now put.

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

The House divided : Ayes 100, Noes 26.

Division No. 169] [12.10 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Aitken, Jonathan

Allen, Graham

Ashton, Joe

Banks, Tony (Newham NW)

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Battle, John

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

Boateng, Paul

Bray, Dr Jeremy

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

Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)

Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)

Browne, John (Winchester)

Buchan, Norman

Clay, Bob

Clelland, David

Clwyd, Mrs Ann

Cohen, Harry

Corbett, Robin

Corbyn, Jeremy

Crowther, Stan

Cryer, Bob

Cummings, John

Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)

Davis, David (Boothferry)

Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)

Dixon, Don

Dobson, Frank

Doran, Frank

Evans, John (St Helens N)

Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)

Fallon, Michael

Fearn, Ronald

Field, Frank (Birkenhead)

Fisher, Mark

Flannery, Martin

Foster, Derek

Fraser, John

Fyfe, Maria

Garel-Jones, Tristan

Garrett, John (Norwich South)

Golding, Mrs Llin

Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Grocott, Bruce

Ground, Patrick

Hardy, Peter

Holland, Stuart

Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)

Hughes, John (Coventry NE)

Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)

Irving, Charles

Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)

Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald

Leighton, Ron

McFall, John

McKelvey, William

Madden, Max

Mahon, Mrs Alice

Malins, Humfrey

Marek, Dr John

Marlow, Tony

Martlew, Eric

Meale, Alan

Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)

Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)

Mowlam, Marjorie

Murphy, Paul

Nellist, Dave

Orme, Rt Hon Stanley

Powell, Ray (Ogmore)

Next Section

  Home Page